Rhona Mitra brings a certain cachet to TNT’s The Last Ship (Sundays, 10/9C), the new series from Michael Bay as an actor with a wealth of genre experience (Strike Back, Doomsday, Stargate Universe). She plays a scientist, virologist Dr. Rachel Scott, who is on a classified mission on a U.S. Navy destroyer when a new virus strikes down 80% of the world’s population – and she might be able to find a cure.
Recently, Mitra spoke with a group of bloggers/journalist about working on the Michael Bay series (explosions!).
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Rhona Mitra: No problem. How are you?
Mitra: Yes, great. Thank you.
So what was it about the show that made you want to do it?
Mitra: I think the subject matter’s incredibly poignant. And I think that it’s something that needs to be discussed right now. And I very much wanted to work with Michael Bay and work with my old friend Eric Dane again.
And did you do any research before taking on the role?
Mitra: I did a tremendous amount of research. In fact I already know a lot about paleomicrobiology and virology because I’m somewhat of a geek. And this world and the subject matter is already of great interest to me, so it came at the perfect time.
I really enjoyed those first three episodes. And I liked the fact that the characters weren’t all just a kind of a one note character. Yours in particular had a lot of development even just in those first three.
Is that something that existed when you started with the part? Or is it something that developed as you were working with it?
Mitra: Gosh. Thank you so much for saying that. It had to develop very much because of the nature of the first episode and the information that she was holding with the – against the Navy I suppose.
And so once that information implodes, there’s a great release of a human being that was allowed to unfold. And I very much wanted to make sure that she was released and the human being underneath that was released and exposed with a chance to exchange some level of vulnerability with a view to working as a unified force.
And also with the audience accepting her as not just being this sort of closed off, very guarded scientist who is really keeping a great, dangerous treasure from her comrades – potential comrades – and the audience. And so it was a conscious shift that I had to make to make sure that she was warmed by the ship and hopefully by the ship.
I know it definitely was – it was really nice to see. Now we’re given hints about there being something unnatural about the virus. Obviously I don’t want to get into it too much. But will we be learning more about that as the season progresses?
Mitra: Yes, absolutely – yes. There’s all sorts of – oh gosh. What’s the word I’m looking for?
Mitra: I suppose – well there’s definitely that. This character that is the virus just really has a number on the call sheets because the personality of this particular virus is exactly what – I mean I think the ship should have her own number on the call sheet and so should the virus. They’re two such strong personalities, you know?
And we’ll see them unfold and see exactly – and how other people have impacted the virus and what has happened and how that exactly has taken hold of the planet in the way it has. And that’s really to me I think one of the most intriguing parts of our show.
Can you talk a little about what it’s like to work on a show like this? Like what was the most – what’s the unique challenge with working on a project like this?
Mitra: Well first of all working on a naval destroyer – hi there, hello. Yes, working on a naval destroyer on a physical level was incredibly taxing because none of us have worked on a ship like this. The Navy hasn’t allowed anyone to work on a ship like this before.
So physically it was restricting, and also because time wise we had to work with its schedule. But as the only sort of zoologist or scientist in a very stark military, very full family if you will, being the orphaned child and the unwanted orphan child as it turns out for a moment. It was quite difficult because it’s like being the child on the playground that no one wants to play with.
But at the end of day when you have a mission which is far greater and eclipses anything that anyone could possibly imagine, it becomes actually a very easy task because you’re left with the solo understanding that you have the human race and its existence in your hands. So you run with that bone.
And then did you talk to any military people to help you prepare for this?
Mitra: I’m sorry, could you say that again?
Did you talk to any military people to help you prepare for this?
Mitra: Well I’m not military. I’m a virologist. So I talked to virologists and paleomicrobiologists.
When – we haven’t had a pandemic of this nature to deal with in real life, thank goodness. But does the doing of this show and the research that you did impress upon you how fragile we are?
Mitra: I already knew how fragile we were before I started shooting this show. So the show didn’t impose that knowledge upon me. I already was aware of the state that we are in as a race and the fragility of our planet. So I came fairly well equipped with an abundant amount of knowledge as to where we’re at.
And so I find this to be an extraordinary channel to be able to expose some of that information and share some of the possibilities of how we can tackle the solutions for a possible pandemic like this.
And this show first and foremost, people will watch it because, you know, big explosions, lots of action, exciting, so but I gather than you’re hoping that there’s something more that people can take away from watching it. Am I right? What do you most hope that people will take away from watching it?
Mitra: Well it has human beings deal with a situation like this of this magnitude, and how we come together as a unified force. And it really doesn’t matter whether you’re from a military background or a scientific background. What it boils down to is who you are as a human being and how you show up.
What I like about this show is that the level of trust between the captain, his first officer and Dr. Scott isn’t quite there. So there’s a lot of room to develop that a little bit. And there’s even a little bit of mistrust even and up to this episode.
What’s that like to play that kind of dynamic with these characters? Usually in a show like this everybody’s on board. But it’s kind of nice to have a little tension there.
Mitra: It’s completely expected to have more than a little bit of tension when you’re dealing with the fate of the human race and two very steadfast, very different backgrounds, neither of which understand each other. She has no information of US military. Well she does, she’s worked with, you know, obviously within the confounds.
But really there’s a sort of – the motivation that the captain of a ship has is to take care of his crew and to be on mission. And when he’s not exposed to the mission which is a much greater mission than his own which is one that one woman is harboring, it’s, you know, it’s hard to not think of one person as being an albatross to his ship.
So it’s about working around and realizing and having the ship and the captain realize that you’re the dove and not the albatross. And so it’s a lovely dance that we play out really with one goal which is a unified goal which cannot be about ego. It can’t be about government. It can’t be about what everyone has learned before and your credentials and your stripes and your, you know, credits.
It’s just about oh my gosh, we have a completely new scenario that really neither of us could have really comprehended even though it’s a possibility and they’re intelligent people, and about figuring out how to best become a joined force to deal with that and shredding away one’s ego I suppose.
And that’s a lovely dance to play out on screen and in life I think for all of us. Because at the end of the day we’re really just left as who we are as human beings in a skin and a shell. And the rest of it is all for naught when you’re left with and you’re dealt a catastrophe like this.
And it’s a humbling place to be. And so as this show moves on, the armor falls off if you like and the people are exposed which is what I find to be most enchanting.
So is there room for you to develop like with working with the producers to kind of develop her and even maybe we’ll learn some of her back story a little bit?
Mitra: That’s coming in. It’s already – I don’t – that’s already happened. You just haven’t seen it.
They’re wonderfully on point with that. We have great writers and they’ve – I hope they have – I think they’ve done very well in bringing all of that stuff in and developing these characters. So the layers fall off and you do get to see all the back stories of all of our characters, which is the most important thing at the end of the day.
Absolutely. Thanks. I’m really happy for you. I think it’s going to be a good addition kind of teaming up with Falling Skies. I think it will make a nice one two punch there.
Mitra: Oh lovely. Gosh, that would be great, wouldn’t it? I hope so too. Thank you so much.
I guess one of the things which I see with this show is use of character. How are you going to make sure the science is properly developed as you go on teaming with the writers and producers which you’ve already talked about?
But bring it forward not only just for the crew which you deal with – maybe like the XL atom bomb’s character, but to the audience where it still stays entertaining but it is fairly accurate. What kind of challenges does that bring to you as an actress?
Mitra: Well we are working symbiotically with virologists and paleomicrobiologists – the writers have been, I have been, from day one and way before. Because the virus itself is almost number one on the call sheet in as far as, you know, that’s our nemesis.
But to my character it’s almost her romance because virologists and paleomicrobiologists have a very tight woven relationship with viruses that really goes much deeper than the average mind or being could every comprehend because they spend their whole lives chasing viruses like surfers chase waves if you will.
And my relationship with the virus becomes a very intricate one which I feel and I’ve felt has been very necessary that the audience understands that while the rest of the world finds this global pandemic to be something that has caught them out of left of field, you know, to somebody in her world is something that they all predicted.
So while it’s something that has obviously become very overwhelming and has taken over to the point where no one could have really imagined it would happen so quickly, the reality of it actually isn’t so – it’s not so – it’s really not that extraordinary to somebody like her.
It’s just about making sure that the language and how she understands it is translated to the more sort of pedestrian mind if you will.
I had an uncle who was a chemical engineer in the Army. So I kind of understand that in one respect. And I always thought our removal between him and his groups and a lot of the other military people because they were enamored with things while to be quite honest the rest of them were very fearful of them. There was that – always that tension between the two groups.
Mitra: Yes, yes, yes. Well that’s exactly the tension because what you have is a very linear, military environment who are used to black and white, yes and no. And the wonderful thing about – and I say it because I’ve become so entrenched in this world – about viruses and mutating, you know, viruses is that they are Machiavellian.
They shape shift and they move and there’s something enchanting about them because they’re so brilliant and clever. And so they become enamored by them in a way. And so as they move and they don’t have a way – there’s no way that you can communicate the language of a virus to somebody who’s very black and white and linear, who needs tell me where it’s going next because I need navigational points.
And the answer is I have no idea because there are things that are influencing this – who have influenced it – that I have to uncover like an archeologist to understand exactly how and when this changed and mutated and why it did. So it’s an ongoing dance for a virologist while for somebody in the naval world, they need clear answers.
And so you have this brilliant conflict between the two languages which is, you know, clarity and certainty and definition and absolutely ad hoc, you know, AWOL undefined brilliance. And that doesn’t work for the military. But it works for a virologist.
The dichotomy is kind of perfect I think because you can’t tame this. You can’t – it’s an ever-evolving beast. And if you know this world, you’ll understand why it becomes – it’s such a veiled community. Because they – these virologists and paleomicrobiologists really only communicate with each other because it’s such a hidden language and such a hidden passion.
Yes. I mean I guess for the military people the only thing they can even closely relate to is the ((inaudible)) had for each other during World War II and even before.
Mitra: Say that again, sorry.
I guess being – the closest the military has to that is where a ((inaudible)) had their appreciation of each other even before the outbreak of World War II.
Because their tactics were so different and, you know, their love of war was so entrenched.
Mitra: Yes. But at the same time it’s just always structured – structure, structure, structure. And, you know, and yes, you have to kind of think off the bat and you have to kind of come up with solutions as things happen.
But, you know, viruses don’t have names or faces. And so you’re decoding and relating to something that’s a completely foreign entity. And this isn’t, you know, this isn’t wearing a turban and it’s not someone you can point the finger at and blame, you know, and turn the whole country against and say it was them, you know?
And then that’s what’s fascinating is that it comes in a guise that none of us would have ever imagined – a difficult thing…
I wondered if kind of maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you first became involved in this project, and if you don’t mind also about the audition process for the role of Rachel Scott.
Mitra: I didn’t audition.
Mitra: And it came to me thankfully and wonderfully as an offer. So when it came my way I did everything I could to clear a space in front of me to make sure that I could be part of it. And it’s such an extraordinary project with such extraordinary people across the board from Michael Bay to TNT and writers, and then beyond that just this incredible character – playing this extraordinary woman who has this incredible task in front of her.
And you just really don’t see too many characters like this either on – in the television world or in film. And I feel that there’s been so much in my life and my career that I have done that wonderfully led up to playing something as balanced as this and having this dichotomy of physical and cerebral strength.
And so that’s why I wanted it and I’ve been working very hard since to make sure that I’m doing my best…
And as a follow up question, I know you can only speak in very general terms, but is there – I don’t know – was there a particular scene that sticks out for you acting wise from The Last Ship that you can talk a little bit about with us – anything come to mind?
Mitra: Yes, but you haven’t seen it yet.
Oh, I know. Perhaps from the first three episodes let me – I can go back to that because which I have seen which were wonderful. Anything in the first three that really stick out for you acting wise, scene wise that you can tell us a bit about?
Mitra: There’s a point in Episode 1 I believe – is it Episode – well where is the episode? We’ve shot them all now so it’s a bit tricky. And we shot them all completely out of synch.
Mitra: Where I have to tell him – where the – no, where the Russians have come and they’ve attacked me. And then they pulled me out of the snow and I have to tell Captain Chandler basically the ruse is up. And I have to divulge to him that I have been harboring this information and keeping the knowledge from him and his whole ship that the possibility that his whole family and their families really could have been infected by this virus.
And we shot it at about 12:00 at night. And the scene was rewritten. We’d already shot it once.
Mitra: And it had been in very different circumstances. And they rewrote it that day and they had us reshoot it. And it’s probably the most important scene – one of the most important scenes I think of the entire series.
And it was relearning words and it was making sure that everything was on point and the balance of basically exposing this information about the fact that 80% of the world’s population had been infected by a virus.
And getting the balance of that information across in the television world – especially as a woman where I’m not Bruce Willis and I’m not an action hero. She’s a scientist. And getting the balance right – making sure that that information was plausible while, you know, my close up was probably about 1:00 in the morning after having, you know, already shot 15 hours in that day was a worry for me because I wanted to make sure that that scene was on point.
And Eric being a very old friend of mine, someone I’ve worked with before. We worked thank goodness very closely together in making sure that we got that balance right and hopefully we did.
So out of the whole experience, what’s kind of been your favorite part overall?
Mitra: My favorite part has been really talking with the scientists and the virologists and the paleomicrobiologists about the truth of the situation and digging in deep to connecting to the reality of story versus reality of what’s happening on our planet and connecting to that as a human being, as a woman, and making sure that those – that umbilical cord is connected and the through line is joined and that it doesn’t seem like some sci-fi, far off, extraordinary possibility.
And so keeping that thread of truth has been my favorite part so far.
One of the things I noticed in the first three episodes is how much tension there is between you as being the only non-military person. Over the course of the season, is that going to break down when the rest of the crew kind of realizes what’s left? Or is it going to remain sort of stuck in place so that everyone on the ship maintains their order that they’re used to?
Mitra: Well ultimately what happens is that there’s a much greater – I suppose the – something imposes itself that becomes so much greater than either of our agendas and eclipses all of the sort of the military training and the virology training. And what happens is that human beings come together and they realize that they have to work together to combat one thing to create a goal which benefits the greater good.
And so all of that posturing and fear and military training and I have these credentials – fundamentally it has to fall away. Because when you’re dealt such a card as we have been dealt, really the only thing that you have is who you are as human beings. The rest of it doesn’t mean anything.
Because when society doesn’t recognize military and it doesn’t recognize science or your credentials, you’re just boys and girls showing up working together. And so inevitably I’m glad to say that for the most part it falls away.
Okay. And do you see that making the show more of an ensemble show? Or do you see that there is a lead character for – either you or for any of the other – any other members on the crew?
Mitra: It’s an ensemble show.
Okay. All right, thank you.
Mitra: Thank you. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
Photos by Karen Ballard, Maarten De Boer and Richard Foreman/Courtesy of TNT