In tonight’s episode of Alphas(Syfy, 10/9C), Malik Yoba’s former FBI Agent, Bill Harken, tracks a killer alpha to an underground fight club, where he takes a whupping and meets Kat, a young girl with a pretty unusual alpha ability.
Last week, Yoba spent a bit of time chatting with a group of bloggers/journalists about season three of Alphas, Harken’s evolving relationship with Gary and the impact that Kat has on his character. He also displayed a wee bit of an alpha ability himself…
Hi, thanks so much for being on the call today.
Malik Yoba: Thank you.
And congratulations on a terrific season premiere. I really liked it a lot.
Yoba: You enjoy that?
Absolutely, yes. It was (unintelligible)…
Yoba: All the action?
…action and – absolutely. It was neat. And that’s actually kind of what I wanted to ask you about. It seemed – I know it’s the season premiere and that’s always a little bit different, but it seemed like there was a lot more intensity, a lot more action in the season premiere. Is that going to carry out throughout the season?
Yoba: Not necessarily. I think that – and you know, the writers probably could speak more to it, and the director of that. But I think that the goal was to try to start it with a bang, literally.
So and it still, even to us like you know, Season 2 is a bit almost like, you know, doing a mini-pilot again, you know, you have to kind of set up who’s who, where we are. And obviously we were a little disjointed so there was the process of creating a team all over again but.
Yes, there’s some good action coming up though. I get beat up quite a few times, which I don’t really appreciate but you know. The good thing is I can always – I just look at the production manager and go, ‘Please schedule a massage for tomorrow.’
Nice. So will we be seeing a Bill-centric episode or story arc this season?
Yoba: Not – yes, I don’t know why I was saying no. We’re on 13 right now so it’s been a while. But yes, I think the season actually kind of opens with Bill-centric, at least certainly for the first couple episodes, I think that the Bill storyline, we kind of get right into where Bill’s at, where we left him and where he is now and how – you know, what state he’s in.
Without giving away too much, I was definitely like, ‘What, really? All right,’ that kind of thing. But yes, it’s been good. It’s been good though.
Great. And you’re – are you done shooting now for the season or it’s still on?
Yoba: No, we’re on 13 right now.
Can you talk about what the most challenging part of your role is?
Yoba: Not looking like I did when I was 26. You laugh with me. Actually you know, the fact that we started the season off with a lot of action and a lot of physical stuff, for me.
I had an experience that I never had before on set where I turned to Warren Christie’s character one day – not his character, but to Warren, we were shooting the episode that I think is Number 3, where Bill goes into a fight club. And I had like 3 fight scenes in a week, more in 2 days or something like that, during a week of shooting. It was very, very physical and I remember, and I was really tired and I turned Warren and I was like, ‘Dude, I think I’m going to cry right now.’
So like there was a literal physical challenge for me. But it’s great because I am 45 and you know, I work hard to stay fit. And so the physical challenges are there. I think that’s probably it.
And I think sometimes, you know, just making sure that you know collectively, meaning writers, directors, all the actors, everyone is working to keep one vision when you have so many moving pieces, you know? And with so many characters I think we’re still in a place where, you know, sometimes we have to just – that presents its own like creative challenges.
But those are good because I think that as a result of it, everybody contributes to making the moments the best that they can be, first when they’re on the page, and then when you’re on set and you’re in a moment.
And you know, you might have something that, you know, you were actually challenged by in that moment like, ‘Okay, how are we going to make this work? Where’s the logic here? Who should do what? How do we,’ you know.
And I think that’s the part – or at least for me, that I really, really love, you know. Because out of that comes the thing that people enjoy. So whatever the challenges are, it’s always good because we meet them and then I think we have some level of success.
Okay great. And how are you most like and most different your character?
Yoba: I think Bill is shorter and I think the fact that Bill is a former agent and comes to the group as a person with a certain expertise in, you know, law enforcement and you know, protocol and procedure and all that kind of stuff, I think you know, I had a scene with the three women in the show the other day and I was like, ‘This is like Daddy mode,’ and I am a dad so you know, how I was talking to them was how I’d talk to my kids.
So I think there are those times when just as a man and an authoritative figure, you have to sort of take a position that could feel very, very familiar. But I try in this particular case, you know, I definitely don’t feel that I’m often times like tapping into like Malik stuff to play Bill, if that makes sense, other than like…
Yes. All right, thank you so much.
Yoba: Well I was going to say other than humor. I think that humor is a really important element of our show. And so just I always try to also work from that place of, ‘Wouldn’t this be funny if…’
I want to ask you about Bill a little bit. I thought during the episode he kind of had some misgivings of some of the choices he made when Rosen was incarcerated. Can you kind of tell us mentally where he is at the beginning of the season?
Yoba: I think Bill is definitely – and this happens throughout the season, I think you know, we start off where I feel like, you know, we’ve been lied to, or just the whole truth wasn’t told. And so over the first few episodes you’re definitely going to get some of that tension between Rosen and Harken.
And it’ll – yes, it’s – there’s a couple good moments with David and I where we get to deal with that stuff so. Bill is – Bill, you know, as we said in the premiere that for the last 8 months he’s, you know, he stayed on the job. And you know, because that’s all he really can do and wants to do.
And so he, you know, he begins to question, you know, where Rosen’s head is at and why he does what he does. I think that that’s some of the conflict that we’ll definitely see in Season 2.
You know, just briefly I thought the scene in the second season opener between you and Gary, after having the adventure you both had last season, was very telling on how things were. And you could sense your frustration trying to communicate with him. It was a really good scene for the both of you.
Yoba: Thank you.
Hi, it’s nice to get to speak with you. This is my first time talking to you.
Yoba: How you doing man?
Yoba: When’s your birthday?
September 24, ’69.
Yoba: I felt that man, that’s a week after my birthday on the 17th.
Yoba: I am, there you go.
You’ve got some psychic powers.
Yoba: So a week before your birthday you can think of me and I’ll think of you.
I will. I didn’t know you had that gift. That could be your Alpha – secondary Alpha power huh?
Yoba: I’m pretty intuitive around certain things. I’m just you know, it’s kind of crazy.
I have multiple questions, I’ll just ask two now and get back in the follow-up line. The first one is considering your work in action driven shows like Nikita and Person of Interest, I feel that you could speak with some authority on fight choreography, you being around it and experiencing it, and for this fight club Alpha episode, was a new fight choreographer or stunt choreographer brought in or did you use the same person as always (unintelligible)?
Yoba: No, we used Jamie Jones. Jamie Jones is our Stunt Coordinator, he’s a great guy. I mean you could do a whole series on that dude and his family. His actually wife and his four kids are all stunt people and they – the entire family works on the show, which is pretty amazing.
But no, Jamie did it. And I also contribute. I practiced martial arts growing up so I try to incorporate some of that stuff, like if you saw last season when I did that flying kick and bust through the door, that was you know, my idea. It was written literally like, ‘Harken, like a rhino, busts through a door.’ I was like, ‘No, I’m going to be a little more elegant. How about if I fly through the air and kick it?’ And so I just did it.
But no we use the same fight choreographer and it’s very collaborative, again you know, in terms of how much I want to put in or not put in, how much I want to do and not to do for me. So it’s a lot of fun.
The prison fight in the premiere seemed kind of hard core, like extra intense.
Okay, so my second question is about your co-star Azita, she impresses me as an especially fun type of person to be around. Do you have any thoughts or anecdotes just about working with her, being friends with her?
Yoba: I hate her. I absolutely hate her, can’t stand her. No, Azita’s like my little sister twin kind of thing. She does like to have fun. Anecdotes about Azita? Plenty, plenty. She’s just fun to watch.
You know, Azita is very – she’s one of these kids that, you know, and if you’ve talked to her you could ask her the same things, but you know, she grew up you know, as an immigrant kid from Afghanistan watching television, wanting to like just be entertained and wanting to be a part of it. And so I love watching the fact that as an Afghan woman, she gets to actually live out her dream and work on being a little starlet.
So one of my favorite moments with Azita is I guess when she ended up in Maxim magazine, because that ended up on the wall in my trailer.
Looking at your character through the first season, and now you know, entering into the second season, are you happy with sort of the changes that have – that come about? I mean he’s definitely seemed to, you know, almost soften a bit, and you know, become a little bit more receptive to Gary and the others. Do you see that and do you like it?
Yoba: I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?
Yes, do you like how your character has changed a bit over the episodes, and kind of softened a little bit with the other Alphas?
Yoba: Yes, I mean you know, television being a long-form story-telling format, you know, we get a chance to – we have to evolve. So… and that’s one of the things that, you know, in Season 2 we try to figure out how we can retain some of that stuff that, you know, causes conflict and tension, because that’s really where the comedy or the drama will come from, you know, real conflict.
But yes, plus I just love working with Ryan and we – you know, the fact that he’s an autistic character, there’s always going to be so much that you can do and how far you can actually go. So we have a lot of fun improving on the show.
So yes, I’m happy to where we go. But you know, as you’ll see and of course through Season 2, we’re not always happy with each other.
Have you – it’s kind of a corny question, but have you ever thought if you were an Alpha, you know, what special power you would want?
Yoba: I’d have the ability to stop – to make people stop asking the same question. I don’t know man, I guess I’d levitate or something.
Will there be an evolution of powers, or new abilities for Bill this season?
Yoba: How do I answer that? Definitely an evolution, I think the idea that it’s an evolution, yes. It’s an interesting thing when you do a show with these abilities because I think that careful consideration has to be given to like how we actually treat it so that we can be consistent. And so you talk about evolution or a different ability, like that’s an interesting concept that we play with like, ‘How does this evolve?’
In Season 1 we – okay, we work with this doctor who helps us understand who we are and how we are and why we have these abilities. And so if there’s a downside to them, how do we manage that? And I think in working to manage the downside, the ability shifts a bit. And so you’ll definitely see that in Season 2, yes.
Okay cool. And is – what about the subplot of Bill and his wife wanting to have children; does that come up again or does it (unintelligible).
Yoba: She has an affair with another Alpha woman. You heard it here first. Oh is that a spoiler? I hate when I do that.
No we get to – we just actually shot a scene the other day. So the baby issue definitely continues and is dealt with in an interesting way.
And then one last question then about the diversity of the cast that it’s really refreshing to see a cast comprised the way that it is and the characters, as well as their differences. But they’re not necessarily limited by what makes them so diverse.
Yoba: That’s right.
Was that important for you when coming onto this project, that you know, Bill wasn’t going to be, you know, a token character or something like that so?
Yoba: Well the irony is Bill was written as a white dude with an Asian wife. So when we did the pilot there were still script – you know, stage directions that, you know, talked about a white guy with his cheeks reddened and I told them to leave it because I thought it was kind of funny that you know…
But I think that’s important. I think that that’s definitely something that I’ve talked about. I actually just wrote an email to Bill – Bruce Miller this morning about like even how we use music, diverse kind of music, for instance (Beanie Man) as a reggae – huge reggae artist is a huge fan of the show and so how we can use music to expand the audience – the diverse audiences that will come to a show like this, that I think people who aren’t necessarily sci-fi fans do enjoy.
It’s important in the casting. I was very happy to see that by the like fourth or fifth episode of this season we have more diversity in casting than we did the entire last season. And those are things that everybody, you know, from Bruce on down, obviously is giving consideration to.
So the thing I also love is that we never deal with race; it’s Alphas or non-Alphas, good Alphas, bad – you know, that’s very refreshing to work in television and not have to deal with that. So yes, and we don’t even discuss it as a group, like it just never comes up. If anyone brings it up it’s me, and only to the extent that, ‘Let’s get…’
Like the wife, I thought she should have remained Asian. You know, I’ve never had – every time I’ve actually had an opportunity to have an Asian woman as a character in a movie or a TV show there’s some reason why they couldn’t find one. I’m like, ‘That’s ridiculous.’
So – not that I’m trying to not have black women work, but I just think that in general, like I’m directing a film right now, and I’m very conscious of showing the world I live in — that’s important to me, that we live in a diverse society. I think that television and mass media definitely has a great responsibility in presenting the whole story, which we don’t always do.
Well it’s great. It’s very noticeable with you and (Holly) and Azita. As an Asian-American myself it’s really – it is refreshing to see a show like this and not, you know, throw the race issue always out there.
Yoba: Yes man. Yes, definitely. So yes.
I just wanted to say before I ask my question that, ‘You’re a large part of the reason I watch Alphas.’
Yoba: Okay, thank you. Ego, stroke, stroke, ego, stroke, stroke. I’ll take it.
Okay. I’m going to touch a little bit on what the last person asked. Science fiction has a tendency to erase people of color, and when they are included, they’re usually token roles.
So one of the things that caught my attention right away was that Bill was actually the leader of the group and he wasn’t a token and he wasn’t overtaken by Cameron. I’m wondering how – if you feel that by taking part in this that you’re sort of moving things forward in the genre where we’ll begin to see more inclusive roles for marginalized people?
Yoba: Well the good thing is we shoot the show in Canada. So you mentioned Cameron right? Warren Christie is a Canadian, and we shoot with a Canadian crew. And so it’s interesting even just dealing with the whole race politic question shooting in Canada, which – because it doesn’t come up.
I am often the only black dude on set, but I don’t think about it, I don’t feel it, we don’t talk – you know it’s – and not out of like no one’s aware but – we are but, what I like is that were professionals and people who care about a particular product and project. And so we work really well collaboratively to make the best show possible where that really never comes up, so that’s interesting in and of itself.
Second part for me is I’ve been in this game for 20 years as a professional and I’ve been doing it since I was in elementary school. And for me it was just – you – my father always said, "Build your own generator so when they turn off the power you still have light."
So throughout my career I’ve had other things that I initiate on my own as a man, but I happen to be a black man. So I say all that to say that conversation about being groundbreaking or, you know, the opportunities or lack of opportunities, at the end of the day this is a really, really hard business no matter what – who you are.
And I say all that to say, like we just have to continue to have the conversation about doing our own shit, like I write, I direct, I produce, I’m working on my own film right now. In fact I’m shooting a trailer for my film, What’s on the Hearts of Men, which is going to be a very diverse audience because I also understand international distribution doesn’t just look like black people and I understand the challenges of selling us internationally.
But while I’m shooting a series I’m directing my own piece and no one else in the cast is doing that because one, that’s just not where their head is. But that’s my determination, you know, I’m pushing to direct the third season of Alphas and I have full support of production, you know, in this endeavor of my entrepreneurial pursuits, so that really is the question. And the answer for me is like, "We can’t keep talking about the opportunities we don’t have if we don’t work really hard to create our own luck."
And if I – and having some perspective, you know, when I was a kid I gave my teacher my autograph when I was 13 and told them I was going to be famous. And I was in the Drama Club from elementary school to high school performing arts programs, and worked at the Negro Ensemble Company as a 16 year old and did all that and have all that kind of perspective.
And at the end of the day the thing that I feel has contributed to my ability to continue to work in this business, and I feel like my career has largely about hitting singles, right, if this is a game, and by staying in the game I still hit 300.
And I think the biggest part is because I don’t think about what is impossible, you know. And that’s one of the things I love about Tyler Perry, you know, having worked with Tyler, having known Tyler before he did he first films. Knowing him from the play game. That’s an example of – he – there’s one thing about him, is that it doesn’t matter what he doesn’t know, it doesn’t matter that he didn’t go to film school, it doesn’t matter that he didn’t get a degree in writing from some place.
For everything he doesn’t know how to do from a film making perspective, he just does it anyway. And he wins. And that – and people support that. And I think that’s how we shift this whole conversation about what we have or don’t have. Because here’s somebody who wasn’t even in the game that changed the game.
I know that you also sing, so I was wondering, are we at some point going to see a softer side of Bill where…
Yoba: I hope so, I was hoping to actually…
…the writers will incorporate that?
Yoba: I, you know what, since you said it, I’m going to have to think of – we’re not done filming yet, so I’m going to work it in somehow, girl. Work it into this last episode.
Thank you, I’d appreciate that.
Yoba: But no, I definitely – actually recently go some music placed on the show, but not my actual music, just some artists that I’m working with. But that, I definitely plan to do more of that, so thank you.
You know I was curious of how difficult is the shooting for Alphas? You had mentioned a little earlier, you know, that some of the stunts and action, is it difficult compared to your other work?
Yoba: Filmmaking is difficult no matter what it is, but definitely the physical component, that definitely adds to the challenge of it. But this season because the way they they’ve writing episodes, the workload has been distributed a little more evenly. Especially toward the second half of the season, for me personally, like today is a day off, last season I had four days off the entire shooting schedule.
So this year I’ve, you know, I’ve made five trips back home to New York so we were able to do Comic Con, I was able to, you know, travel and do some other things so it can be tough, but it hasn’t been brutal like it was last year.
I’m curious also, you know, in the beginning stages when this was coming about, when you were offered the role did you sort of just jump in head first or was there any hesitation about getting into, you know, such a big commitment and perhaps also the types of job (unintelligible).
Yoba: I said no three times actually. For my agents, when they first called and said – because I had just done the series Defying Gravity the year before in 2009, and we set the pattern for this in 2010.
So in 2009 I had spent six months doing Defying Gravity and Alphas is actually my 11th television series and the Law of Averages says that most aren’t successful, so for a number of reasons I said no, which were mainly about who were the people – like I didn’t want to be away from my kids. And you know, as I mentioned before I’m an entrepreneur so I have a bunch of my own, you know, things going on.
And it is a huge time commitment, we spend four and a half months of our lives in another country away from family, you know, working on a television show. And so if all the pieces aren’t working, if these interviews don’t happen, if the marketing isn’t right, if the outreach isn’t right if you’re using social net, all the elements that make something find traction.
If those things aren’t employed it can be very, very frustrating from business standpoint. So I’m definitely am one of those actors that doesn’t, you know, the business is longer than the show, you know what I mean, literally. And so if the business isn’t right then I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to be a part of it.
And fortunately, you know, this has been one of the highlights of my career. I love doing the show, I love the people I work with, I love shooting in Toronto. I think we have an opportunity to really build a brand that, you know, can be around for a while and already seems to mean something to people.
And having, you know, in television I’ve only had that experience a couple of time with like New York Undercover, that show radically altered the television landscape. You know, then doing shows like Girlfriends, or even doing a show like Arrested Development, being part of those shows that really mean something to people. And so that’s the reason why I said no initially, but I’m glad I said yes.
I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. You just embody it so well, appreciate it. And I really miss Defying Gravity, that was such a great show. I’m sorry it didn’t get any further than it did, I think it was just – it’s hard to see it go.
Anyway you mentioned Bruce Miller, can you tell us how things have changed, if they’ve changed at all since you have that showrunner?
Yoba: You know it’s – things have definitely changed and we don’t know if it’s for the good – for better or for worse or if things will stay the same. And that’s an interesting – really, really interesting thing to do. And I mentioned to an earlier, you know, journalist how the challenges can be around fighting for who your character is and who you are.
So Zak Penn and Michael Karnow spent five years working on an idea that they pitched. Originally it was at ABC then it was I think at NBC, it jumped around. So these guys lived with this thing for a long time. And then to have Zak leave and then to have, you know, Bruce came in and then Zak left, and to have half of the creative – the visionaries behind it, you know, that’s challenge in and of itself no matter who the people are.
Yoba: And so Bruce comes in and I think he had a tremendous challenge in how much do you retain of the old team, because everybody, you know, they just finished Eureka, so he brought a lot of folks over from Eureka, which is a very different show, a very different sensibility.
So it was a challenge for all of us, but I like I mentioned earlier, collectively, you know, this is a collaborative business and so, yes there are egos and yes there are all those things that are part and parcel to life. But I think that the audience ultimately will decide if it’s all working together, because there wasn’t, you know, any fights or like, you know, there wasn’t any craziness. Everyone was like, ‘Okay, this is a challenge so what are we going to do? How are we going to keep this, you know, together?’
I just sent an email to Bruce this morning about the finale episode and, you know, what my character is doing and how I have to, you know, say, ‘Hey man we got to remember Bill is an intelligent leader, seasoned, pro-active agent, you know, Dr. Rosen is a doctor, so let’s be clear about who’s who.’
And not from any sort of adversarial point of view, but because you understand truth in storytelling, and that’s why I think we all love to do, whether you’re a writer, whether you’re, you know, like I love the David works. And when he breaks down the script and what he needs and how he expresses himself. David speaks in a lot of metaphors and, you know, analogies and stuff like that and so it’s really interesting.
But I think ultimately the audience decides, you know, the audience decides and in a perfect world I wish that Zak and, you know, Ira and the, you know, the people who held the dream for so long were able to work things out. But at the same time, you know, any – you always look at, you know, whoever started the Yankees isn’t the, you know, the first coach of the Yankees isn’t the coach now kind of thing, you know what I mean?
Yoba: And something – I was kind of liking it like that.
Have they been pretty amenable to working with you and your ideas?
Yoba: Yes, yes, yes. I mean in general there’s an attitude of if it’s a good idea let’s go with it. And it’s a delicate dance, you know, interesting game, you know. People, like I said, there’s ego and there’s all kind of stuff, politics, and all that stuff that works, but I think in general yes, I think you know, I generally don’t have bad ideas.
I wouldn’t think that.
I also noticed in some of the write ups that I’ve seen it looks kind of like the team’s mission has changed a little bit. Is that right or is that (unintelligible)?
Yoba: I’m curious how do you perceive that?
It makes it – at least, the I read was, you know, last season my interpretation anyway was that Dr. Rosen was out trying to find and help Alphas. And now it seems like more this season at least, from the little blurb that I read, it’s going to be more like, "No, we’re going to help the FBI and the CIA, you know, find the bad ones and take care of them." And that just kind of – is that right or is that not?
Yoba: I don’t think that – I think if you looked at the season finale, you know, the season finale was with Rosen going on – in front of – testifying before the Senate saying that there is – Alphas are real.
Yoba: And the whole idea before that was, ‘Let’s keep it under wraps.’ The government was trying to keep it under wraps.
Yoba: So I think that this season deals with the repercussions of him opening his big mouth. And not telling us that he was going to do that.
So that’s where the friction is going to be coming then I take it?
With all of the grand scheme of things, the living in the real world chess match between good and bad Alphas, the government interference and everything, the thing I still find most interesting about the show is the relationships of the characters, in particular Bill and Gary.
And following the season premier Gary is more than a little ticked at Bill and, I would say, rightfully so. So I’m just wondering, how is their relationship going to play out going forward?"
Yoba: You got to watch Man.
Well just give me a tease, come on.
Yoba: You want a tease. How is it – the relationship remains solid. Yes, we still, you know, Bill’s not going to let Gary go. Bill secretly loves Gary like, you know, a little brother.
Yoba: Even though he doesn’t always show it, but that’s actually one of my favorite beats to play, so of my beats and stuff with Ryan, because we, you know, we just – that’s – we actually literally live right next door to each other in Toronto.
Yoba: And so we spend time together, and he’s a friend as well so – and I think he’s brilliant as Gary. And he comes up with some really funny stuff so we have a good time.
Excellent. And I was just wondering if you could give us a bit of a tease on the new character Kat? And you know, nobody else seems to have thought about her, but she’s coming up shortly, what’s the story there?
Yoba: You know Bill has this paternal thing that he’s denying to his wife. He takes like Gary is like his little brother or son, definitely Bill is the one that takes Kat in as his own, and ultimately like by Episode 13, we just did a scene last night where, you know, that relationship definitely pays off when it’s really needed, you know.
So, which is really nice and Erin Way, the girl that plays Kat, is lovely. And so it’s good, I think we do some good stuff together. I think it’s (this week) where you meet her and throughout the course of the season Bill’s got her. Bill definitely takes care of her.
Thanks so much.
Yoba: Thank you, guys.
Photo by Frank Ockenfels/Courtesy of Syfy