by Kim Howard Johnson
Quinn Mallory is sliding through parallel worlds, and Jerry O’Connell is happy to be going along for the ride. O’Connell is starring in Fox-TV’s Sliders, a new science-fiction action-adventure series that follows a young genius and his three companions as they “slide” from one alternate version of Earth to another, looking for their home. Some of the Earths they land on may have been overrun by Nazis, or are enveloped in a new Ice Age, while others are remarkably similar to our own (in one of them, Elvis still lives! And he’s still playing Vegas!).
“It isn’t a typical science-fiction show,” says O’Connell. “It’s very light hearted, not very ‘science-y.’ It revolves more around the four lead characters than it does stunts, explosions or science-fiction tricks like that — although they are a major part of the show, they’re not the driving force. The characters make Sliders different from the other science-fiction shows, and that’s what makes me enjoy it so much.”
Graduate physics student Quinn Mallory (O’Connell) is joined on his journeys by co-worker and would-be romantic interest Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), Professor Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies), whose theories on cosmic wormholes inspired Mallory’s pursuit of knowledge, and down-on-his-luck R&B singer Rembrandt Brown (Cleavant Derricks), who becomes part of the group by accident. They aren’t lost in time or lost in space, they’re lost in an endless series of parallel Earths.
As they slide from reality to reality, they often encounter different versions of themselves, which O’Connell says keeps it all very interesting.
“That’s a lot of fun as an actor, getting to play many different parts,” he says. “One of the drags of being in a TV show is playing the same character week after week, and it gets really boring. That’s not going to happen on this show, because I’m playing a completely new person practically every other week! It’s more challenging than it is confusing, though.”
On his travels through the parallel worlds to date, O’Connell has encountered a few nice places to visit, but he wouldn’t want to stay.
“The Communist world [featured in the two-hour premiere] was fun to visit, and it was interesting to see what the world would be like if it as all governed by Communism, but I really wouldn’t want to live there! I was happy when they yelled ‘Wrap!’ and I was able to go home to watch my choice of capitalist TV stations!”
O’Connell admits they did visit one world that he wouldn’t mind living in, however. “We went to one world where oil has been discovered near San Francisco, and I’m a millionaire — there’s a big oil gusher in my backyard! Unfortunately we were only allowed five minutes in that world.”
The actor admits he finds the concept of parallel worlds fascinating. Although it has long been a staple of science-fiction literature, parallel worlds have only rarely been explored on television.
“I think it’s a new angle on science fiction,” says O’Connell. “It isn’t time travel. It’s something different that really hasn’t been touched, and that’s what’s interesting about it. The whole idea of parallel universes is a lot of fun — what if I had turned left instead of right? It makes for a nice angle on a science-fiction show.”
He got the role of Quinn Mallory through the typical auditioning process; although he is a science-fiction fan, he didn’t think he would be lucky enough to land the part. “[Producers] John Landis, Bob Weiss and [writer/creator] Tracy Tormé were there,” O’Connell says. “I was really hoping to get it, but as an actor, I wasn’t expecting too much.”
O’Connell is in the midst of filming at the Sliders soundstages, and must dash back and forth to the set for more shooting. Upon his return, he explains that the current scenes involve a world where society is dominated by women.
“Everyone talks about Hillary Clinton’s loudmouth husband, the First Man,” he laughs. “It’s very fun. Arturo runs for Mayor of San Francisco, and he’s the first man to run for office. I’m doing some scenes at his campaign headquarters.”
For O’Connell, the most interesting location so far for the show, which is shot in Vancouver, was for a rather brief sequence in the pilot episode. “We were supposed to have gone to an ice world,” he says. “They put snow on an entire street — foam and snow on houses for an entire square block. I had never really seen anything like that before in my entire life — I thought it was pretty extravagant!”
Many episodes of Sliders involve visits to more than one parallel world, and the actor admits he sometimes has trouble keep track of just which world they’re on at any particular moment. “It’s a crazy show, and it’s chaotic,” says O’Connell. “It gets confusing at times, but that’s what makes it fun!”
O’Connell, who was one of the young leads of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and went to star in My Secret Identity, says Sliders is by far his most FX-heavy job. “We’re doing a lot of stunts and lot of special FX — more than I’ve done on any other gig. It seems that we’re tumbling, jumping and flinging ourselves into mats and stunt pads every day. The rest of the cast are all troopers — John, Cleavant and Sabrina — we’re all doing cartwheels and somersaults every day, and it’s really a lot of fun. And that’s another thing about Sliders — it’s very physical. It’s a really great show to world on. It’s a great atmosphere, the whole cast is a blast and the storyline are fun to play with. We’re not stuck in a studio all the time — we’re outside, we’re on the water — it’s endless. It’s really not like work!”
Some of the special FX are more elaborate than others, explains the actor; his most intricate FX work to date involved a scene with his double shot for the pilot.
“We did a motion-control sequence, in which a camera move is stored in a computer so the camera can perform it over and over flawlessly,” says O’Connell. “The camera moves by itself like a big robot. It was for a scene where I see my double and we have a conversation and we walk around each other. I had to do it once just talking to air and the mechanical camera did all of the moves. Then, they put me and the camera in front of a blue screen, and the camera did all of the same moves that the computer told it to do, while I played my double. Then, they put the two together. It took abut two full days to do. It’s hard enough talking to thin air, but it’s even harder when you have to be here in two seconds, and in two more steps you have to be over there in 2.5 seconds. It’s crazy, but it really looks good.”
There are some similarities, but also some significant differences between Quinn Mallory, genius, and O’Connell. “He’s close to me in the sense that he’s young, but I’m pretty much playing against type,” says O’Connell. “He’s getting his doctorate in physics at Berkeley, and I was never much of a science or math student. I’m hoping my old algebra teacher will catch a show so she can see how much I’ve improved!”
The actor’s preparation for Sliders did not include math lessons, he notes, but a bit of speculative science and fiction.
“I did some reading suggested by our head writer, Tracy Tormé, and I brushed up on parallel universe theories,” says O’Connell. “I had read the pilot and already had a pretty good idea of what a parallel universe was. It’s really an interesting concept. As a TV show, the possibilities are endless — what you might be like on another world or how different events would have affected the world in general. One of our early episodes features a worldwide British Empire, where the United States lost the Revolutionary War.”
O’Connell notes that all four of the lead characters fell into their roles from the beginning of production. “We were all excited about the pilot, and I think that really shows,’ he says.” I had a lot of fun on the pilot, and when we found out it got picked up, it was like we had gotten the ball and now we were going to get to run with it!”
Perhaps the most distinguished name in the cast is John Rhys-Davies, best known to moviegoers as Sallah in the Indiana Jones series.
“It’s like working with a legend,” O’Connell says. “He’s a lot of fun to work with. I didn’t know he was doing the show until after I got the part, and I was pleased as punch. Our characters are very close, because we’re both scientists on the show, so we spend a lot of screen time together. He’s a blast! I have a lot of fun working with John. He’s very professional — he’s John Rhys-Davies!”
Being a science-fiction show, Sliders provides it actors with some unique problems to solve. “It’s very technical in some senses, and I’m still learning so much each day. I’m a film student at NYU, and during my breaks, I find myself calling my friends back at school to say, I can’t believe the shot we just did!’ Playing a dual role each week takes a lot of imagination, and being a science-fiction fan myself and watching so much science fiction over the years has helped a lot. You have to have a really good imagination, not only to watch an SF show, but also to work on one.”
Although some of the Quinn Mallorys on parallel worlds are very similar to O’Connell’s original character, there are also notable exceptions. “In one of the episodes, there’s a plague on the Earth, and I play Patient Zero — the person who supposedly started the plague,” says O’Connell. “I start looking for a cure. I was in all this makeup, my face was painted yellow, I had a wig and red contacts to give me red eyes. It was a much darker Quinn, and that’s going to be really nice show.”
The four leads jump from Earth to Earth in Sliders, searching for the world that they came from, but the actor advises fans not to expect them home too soon.
“There are an infinite amount of parallel Earths out there, so each week we hope to get back to ours. That’s part of the fun. Whenever we land on an Earth, we’re certain for the first few minutes that this is home. Could this be home? Is it? It’s very interesting how we find out we’re not home. We’ve done everything from floods and tidal waves to an ice world to meeting killer wasps with six-foot wingspans. Everything from the subtle to the insane.”
O’Connell says the number of parallel Earths they could encounter are as infinite as possible storylines for the series. “Everyone who has seen the pilot says ‘It’s a great show, you could do this and this and this.’ This highway is never going to end… but there are always exits!
“I grew up watching Star Trek, and then The Next Generation,” says O’Connell. “I used to watch shows like The Time Tunnel.”
O’Connell’s SF past also includes the lead roles in My Secret Identity, a superhero series that he remembers fondly. “My Secret Identity was fun to work on. I was playing a kid with superpowers, and it was such a blast for me at that age. It was a fun show to watch, and it was even more fun to do. Sliders is a little older for me, and I think that’s nice — as I grow, so do the parts I get, which is a good thing!”
Almost anything can happen from one moment to next on Sliders, and that’s another reason there’s nothing quite like it on TV at the moment — it can suddenly go into any area. “I don’t see it leaning in any particular direction,” says Jerry O’Connell. “If I were to summarize it in any way, I would say it’s a light science-fiction show. It’s fun, but it can be very dark at times. It’s not going in any one particular direction. You have no idea what’s going to happen. I have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s why I think the show is so appealing.
“It takes so many directions, it’s tough to say where I would like it to go personally, because it’s going everywhere. And it has gone everywhere. What’s I’m really anticipating is where they’re going to take it next. It’s like I’m a fan working on the show — I can’t wait for the new script after every episode, so I can see what’s going on next week!”
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