by Dr. Craig Reid
“What if you found a portal to a parallel universe?” asks Jerry O’Connell each week as over-eager inventor Quinn Mallory while the opening theme music plays for Universal Television’s successful SF action-adventure series Sliders. “What if you could slide into thousands of different worlds, where it is the same year and you are the same person but everything else is different? And what if you can’t find your way home?’ These thought-provoking questions merge into a melting montage of visual fascinations that introduce us to the wild and wooly, multidimensional worlds that have forged stars O’Connell, John Rhys-Davies, Cleavant Derricks, and Sabrina Lloyd into a quartet of crusading voyagers in search of home.
Now in its third season, Sliders chronicles the adventures of four pioneers who discover a gateway that allows them to barnstorm into Earth’s parallel dimensions via a timer that opens an uncontrollable sliding vortex. It is always a present-day Earth to which the eclectic group jumps, but with a difference, since they encounter alternative scenarios each time they slide — worlds where parallel routes have altered both historical and personal situations. During the show’s first few years, the group has “slid” into a broad menagerie of peculiar Earths, including one where the entire city of San Francisco is a prison, a world where men are rare creatures held captive and used exclusively for breeding, and a world where the Declaration of Independence has become invalid. They have tackled dinosaurs and challenged Kromaggs, the latter being fellow Sliders from an Earth where as advanced apes they defeated mankind, and now slide to other Earths in flying manta ray ships in search of their favorite delicacy, human eyes. These creatures may even return as they attempt to find and invade our dimensional Earth.
It was one of LA’s rare rainy days as I headed up Highland Avenue toward Universal Pictures. The world-famous HOLLYWOOD sign poised on a nearby hillside lit my blood afire as I realize that I, too, was about to enter a different dimension. Sliding through the rain-ladened portal of Universal Studios, I couldn’t help but think of Quinn’s words at the start of each episode, though I will hopefully have an easier time returning home than our intrepid band of travelers.
My first visit was with one of the show’s executive producers, Alan Barnette, who has produced television and film projects such as The Equalizer, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Off Limits.
“I came on in the second year,” Barnette explains. “I had seen the pilot and thought it was fabulous. I had never done this type of show before. Running the gambit of action, fantasy, drama, and SF was something that interested me. So I just signed on. Tracy Tormé created the show, and he has since moved on to develop other pilots, but he still remains an executive consultant to the show.
“Things are definitely going to change this year. They have been traveling for three years now, they have all grown up, and they are still on an adventure of a lifetime. Yes, they want to go home, but they realize that there may be millions more worlds out there. The thing is that they are going to be much more proactive. There is no prime directive on this show, so they can get involved and can make a difference. Last year, I felt we were some kind of front for the A.C.L.U., with all the totalitarian governments and dictatorships they ‘slid’ into. Now we want more SF, more fantasy, more action-adventure, and more special effects. We want to go even further for the second half of the season. But to reiterate, ‘proactive’ is the key word for this year.”
Entering Stage 18, one is immediately aware of the organized clutter and background noise that fills a typical sound stage. Being careful not to trip over electrical wires and whispering continuous polite “Excuse me’s,” I catch a glimpse of the show’s young heartthrob, the superstar-to-be, Jerry O’Connell. O’Connell plays Quinn Mallory, the handsome, college-age physics genius who caused the universe-hopping to begin in his homemade, basement laboratory by discovering the key to extradimensional sliding. He enters the makeshift living room as director Richard Compton, filming their Christmas special, blurts, “Same energy, same pace, and — action!”
Knocking on the door of one of the many honey-wagons (private trailers for the stars) that speckle the lot, a loud deep voice bellows, “Come in!” I am greeted by the Welsh-born, impeccably honorable, and graciously outspoken John Rhys-Davies. Best known to film audiences for his roles in such blockbuster hits as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Rhys-Davies is no stranger to television, having accrued credits in such mini-series as James Clavell’s Shogun and Noble House, Great Expectations, War and Remembrance, and Archaeology.
Obviously a man at one with his work, Rhys-Davies tackles each subject with the discerning tongue of a philosopher. He first shares with us his thoughts about the show, followed by a treatise on his evolving character, Professor Maximillian Arturo, Quinn’s traditional professor who reluctantly acknowledges his student’s brilliance and goes along for the scientific ride of his life.
“The show is potentially the hottest in television,” he enthuses. “We have a magic carpet that can take us anywhere in the universe, to any possible universe. The only limitation on the show is the imaginations of the writers and, with the exception of one or two admirable efforts, we are not yet fully off and running in terms of creativity. This year we have certainly made some progress. We have an order for 26 episodes for this year, but you know, the poor writers are just run off their feet and very quickly they get into midseason exhaustion. I think the show is still in its infancy (even though) I know it’s in its third season. We have won acceptance, not by virtue of what we have done, but that everyone recognizes the potential of the show.
“I think Arturo was originally seen as the cowardly professor in Lost in Space, a part that was done admirably when it was first played, but not something that had any attraction to me. So I gave the character a spin earlier on. We had a lot of conflict about it. But now I think he is an intelligent, rational, and very curious man. He’s passionate about science. He has a lot of experience in life and when they write in that aspect of the character, I think he becomes a rich character indeed.”
Actors often draw on their own pasts to create the character within, which in essence becomes the visible character without. Rhys-Davies is no different. “I had once decided that I wanted to do science, so I studied chemistry, biology, and physics in school. I then realized that I was not good enough to win a Nobel Prize. And unless there are big prizes to be had like that, well, with an ego like mine …. (laughter) In response, I turned back and studied English at the university. I have always been interested in science and I have respect for science and engineering. I read New Scientist as often as I can get it here, and Practical Mechanics and other simplistic things. But my exposure to classic literature influenced me to pursue acting and writing.”
He refined his craft at London’s renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and has a host of theater roles to his credit such as “Hedda Gabler,” and most of Shakespeare’s works. His trailer is littered with newspapers, magazines, books, and an opened laptop computer. As with any professional, not satisfied with Arturo simply being just a paycheck, Rhys-Davies hopes to employ Sliders as a forum to address important sociological, philosophical, and scientific issues.
“What I would like to do with the part if I can get close enough to push it,” he explains, “is to act as a sounding board for important ideas that we have in society. For example, the great lookout system for large hunks of rock that are hurtling around the universe is about to be shut down in Australia to save 50 grand worth of investment each year. It might really be something we need in the future.”
We next exchange knowledge of human genomic analysis, the proposed evolutionary significance of telomeres (the very tip of the chromosomes that prevent adhesion between chromosome ends that would otherwise stick together), the lineage of ape to man and how all this should relate to Sliders. With ambitious fervor and a gleam in his eye, Rhys-Davies continues. “Of course, the function of a program like this should be to air and explore ideas like that. I foresee an interesting story where Arturo could befriend a wise woman, basically monkey, and could teach her the ways of medicine. Later on, we see her grandchild asking about us (the four travelers), ‘Were they gods?’ and she says, ‘No, they weren’t.’ He says, ‘Is there a God?’ and she says, ‘I used to ask your grandfather Arturo the same question. He used to say, ‘The universe is so large that anything is possible. Is God probable? Possibly. Is God necessary? Oh God, yes.’
“My instinct for the show would be to push it further into science fiction, to be honest with you. And explore a larger universe and use a very popular forum like this to ask those perennial questions and come up with some interesting speculations like, “Is there a God? Who are we? What do we originate from and what will we become?”
Rhys-Davies divides his time between Los Angeles and the Isle of Man, but never forgets his upbringing in Africa and the generosity of the American people. His world views are poignant and have all added to the development of what he admits is his terrible lack of diplomatic skills, yet this is who is and that all somehow ultimately innervates the character Arturo.
As I listen to John sharing his views, beliefs, and opinions on where he would like to see the show go, I feel as if I am speaking with Arturo himself. The writers have essentially captured the spirit of this man within the components of Arturo’s id. Although quite outspoken, with opinions that may at times appear quite caustic, he is not ungrateful for the opportunities he has received, and indeed has the utmost respect for writers to the point of almost being envious.
“It’s a real joy in life to actually go through it earning money doing what you would do for free if given the chance. Those of us who are in that position, every time that we able, we should remind ourselves of that. Writers are the most fortunate people on Earth. You have a bully-boy pulpit for 44-and-a-half minutes every week. If a show is around for 30 years, like Star Trek — and Sliders is that sort of genre — then over time it will probably be seen by over a billion people. The influence you can have is just remarkable. Don’t give me any clichés. Surprise me. It is one of the most remarkable opportunities for affecting the imagination of future generations. My guess is that one day, how we look at ourselves as a space-going species will partly be due to what we have read about ourselves as a space-going species today As I have said before, Sliders has not reached its potential… yet. ”
There is a knock on the door. He bellows, “Come in.” It is time for Arturo to put on his Santa Claus costume and teach the true meaning of Christmas to a world that has lost its direction, and where the only vector worth traveling upon is the path of spend, spend, spend. He closes with these endearing words: “You know, we are like a family here. All four of us get along like a family.”
Exiting his trailer, we run into Jerry O’Connell. Rhys-Davies hugs him like a father. “This man here,” he says to me, “is such a great guy, a guy who is going places — but a young man with his head screwed on right. You keep your eyes on him, he is going to be big.” O’Connell smiles with embarrassment, but welcomes the adulation with a gleam similar to that of a satisfied son who has made his father proud.
O’Connell’s trailer is incredibly neat, clean, and well organized, a far cry from the roach-infested apartment in the recent film Joe’s Apartment, where thousands of singing and dancing American cockroaches adopted Jerry as their chum. Jerry smilingly reminisces. “Yes, some of the roaches were real, but most of the time they were computer-generated. In fact, I preferred acting with the real roaches — at least I had something there to look at. I wasn’t grossed out or anything like that, because you know I grew up in New York City, so I was raised with roaches. You know what I mean.”
O’Connell boasts an impressive list of credits in both television and film. The New York native made his feature debut a decade ago as the chunky adolescent Vern in Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. During the school breaks while attending New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, he appeared in films and television programs such as Calendar Girl and The Room Upstairs. Although his most recent role was playing opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, where he portrayed a golden-armed, NFL-bound quarterback from Texas, his enthusiasm for Sliders is tremendous.
“I was in NYU film school at the time, and graduation was approaching. I realized that I was going to have to go out and get a job, and I wanted something in the industry It was pilot season and I was reading a lot of pilots. You know, in pilot season for an actor you get about 100 scripts, and 99 are crap. I read this pilot for Sliders, put it down and thought, ‘This would be a great show if it ever became a series. The possibilities could be limitless.’ It was at that moment that I really wanted to be on this show. It got my imagination running and I really chased after it. Three years later I am still at it. I really wanted to work in science fiction because it is more fun than just standing around the studio or a theater on just one set. Plus, I am a young guy. I like to do all the stunts and running around; it is exciting in that way.
“I also liked the scientific aspects. Math and science were never my strong points in life, and I wanted to see if I could pull it off. Actually, it has been a pretty educational experience. And working with John — who is brilliant, and knows just about as much on the subject of physics and interdimensional travel as his character Professor Arturo — around him, I feel like I am going to grad school in physics. Sometimes I actually call John, ‘Professor.’
Quinn is a young guy who has been thrown into this crazy situation. He takes it all in stride. He is pretty relaxed about the thing, and when times are pretty hairy, he’s cool as a cucumber, and at the same time he is a physics genius. He is nothing like me. Again, math and sciences were the weakest points of my education. So I am hoping that my tenth grade algebra teacher will tune into the show so she can see how much I have improved.”
While O’Connell’s approach to life, acting, and the future is less philosophical than Rhys-Davies’s, he sees Quinn’s growing maturity as a reflection of himself. Curiously, the most difficult episode he has worked on so far wasn’t one filled with fights and intricate special effects, but one that perhaps years ago he would have done without feeling so self-conscious.
“The Christmas show that we are shooting today has been the most difficult episode to work on because I have to dress up as an elf throughout most of the episode — the pointy ears, the clogs, the striped socks, the whole nine yards. You’ll see me and Sabrina both in this get-up. We shot a lot of it outside, and shot in a mall yesterday, and I was eating lunch with that on in public. (laughs) That was a little embarrassing. I mean you have got to see John in his outfit, and when you see Cleavant, that’s also pretty funny. I do admit, though, that we just have a blast on the show.”
A banging at the door is a reminder that O’Connell has five minutes before call time. In closing, he discusses his fencing background, where he would like to see his character go, and what the future holds. “In terms of Quinn, I would like him to actually grow with me, and he really is. When we started out three years ago he was a lot more immature and a lot more pouty, and he is a little less so now. Three years ago I was lot less mature and a little bit pouty. It’s fun to see that as Jerry grows, so does Quinn.”
As the night rolls on so does the shooting. The rain continues to fall. Between takes of an intense scene, Sabrina Lloyd leads me to her trailer to fill me in on her character. Lloyd portrays the computer whiz Wade Welles, Quinn’s good friend, whose unrequited love is a source of sexual tension during their escapades. Raised in Florida (and currently living in Virginia), at age 18 she moved to New York City in hopes of becoming an actress. Dressed in her own cute, little elfin outfit, she quips, “I know, I know, these pointy little ears. People at the mail yesterday kept asking me if I was a Vulcan or something.”
Similarly to O’Connell, after weeding through tons of pilot scripts, Sliders was the one script that struck her fancy. “When I went to the audition for this, it was the only pilot that fascinated me. I thought, “Wow, what a great script.” Was I really like about Wade is that she has changed. I think overall, of all the characters, she is the one who has grown the most… originally, she was so different. A computer hacker, geeky girl, girl next door, not your typical fox. (laughs) So it gave me a chance to explore more of a character than I think that a lot of shows have done. She is very strong, and I think this season she has become more feminine, intelligent, and sexier than before. And that is something that they wanted to do, to make her sexier and bolder. She has come from being a tomboy and unsure of herself, but this season she dresses and acts more like a woman.”
Starting out in community theater, Lloyd eventually went on to appear in such productions as Grease and The Wizard of Oz. She made her first feature-film appearance in Chain of Desire, and subsequently starred in Father Hood with Patrick Swayze. She has guest-starred in television’s Law and Order, and starred in the telefilm Off Limits. “There is a bit of me in Wade. Every actor brings a little bit of themselves into their character. Wade is very gung ho to jump into everybody else’s business, but Sabrina is more like, ‘Ah, I am going to let you deal with your problems and I will deal with mine.’ I think that Wade has a lot of energy and is feisty where I am laid back. But I care a lot about people, like Wade does. I am a big humanitarian and I think that Wade is very much the humanitarian on the show. Although I don’t have much free time, I am very interested in getting involved with the Starlight Foundation, where children with terminal disease can fulfill a wish of theirs. I am very fortunate because I have always had wonderful people around me who have taught me what is important in life. Helping each other for one thing. And even though I am in this industry I don’t find it difficult to have a boyfriend. It is only difficult if you want it to be. Love, to me, in my relationship, is just as important as my job, and I will give it equal attention and care as I would with my career. When you go home, that’s the person you are going to be with. I try not to let it be difficult.
“I am very happy where Wade is now. I mean, I would like to see her just continue to grow and be more aware of different causes and to be a strong model for women. I feel that she is getting there. I really fought for that and the producers and writers are very open to that in giving her a strong voice. And being the only woman on the show, it is very important to me.
“Finally, I would like to say that this show has taught me everything. We have been doing the show for three years, and I have grown so much as a person and as an actor. I have been so lucky because I have had three amazing men by my side who are veteran actors in the business and the most wonderful men you could ever meet in your life. We are so fortunate because we genuinely care about each other and love each other to death. And this is what has really helped me to grow as a person. And by my acting and being more confident in my acting, that has helped me become a more confident person. Thanks, guys!”
Rounding off the foursome is Cleavant Derricks, playing Rembrandt “Crying Man” Brown, a member of the R&B group “The Spinning Tops,” known for crying real tears at every performance. Rembrandt is unwittingly caught in the momentum of the initial slide on his way to sing the national anthem at Candlestick Park. The Tennessee-born, Wisconsin-raised Derricks shares with us his background. Unlike his counterparts, his path into Sliders began via Southern Baptist Gospel music. A six-stringed, red bass guitar is proudly perched in one comer of his trailer.
“I began writing Southern gospel music because my father, being in church, was a Southern Baptist composer. I returned to Nashville, wrote music, sang backup at the Grand Ole Opry, then decided to study to become an opera singer. My twin brother then convinced me to come to New York to study acting.”
With his beginnings in off-Broadway productions, Derricks’ hard work paid off when he won a Tony Award for his performance in the hit Broadway show, “Dreamgirls,” a twist that would lead to his inclusion into Sliders, “In fact,” he continues, “a friend of mine who I worked on “Dreamgirls” with and who had auditioned for the part in Sliders called me about the part. He told me that the director of the show loved my work in “Dreamgirls,” and that he really wanted me to audition for the part. But I got the sense that the character would be too stereotypical. My agent said, ‘I know what you are saying, but maybe there is a way you can change it once you get in.’ So I auditioned for the part, and the next thing I know I’m in front of John Landis and all the bigwigs, and they are all laughing and getting a kick out of it. I got the part.
“I don’t know if it was so much the character that attracted me as it was the idea of the show. The sci-fi thing about it. The level you could play with it. There was no stopping a show like this, with its imagination, this is what really drew me. With my character, what I was hoping to draw from the writers was a real human being and not just another caricature, which I felt pretty much what the pilot was. I don’t know if we achieved getting away from that in the pilot. A lot of critics felt that we hadn’t, and some felt that it was OK, but I really wanted a chance to do something spectacular again other than the usual TV humdrum that you see. I have done a lot of sitcoms where the writing is weak, so I was hoping that this show could really grab the audience with its ideas and imagination.”
I ask Derricks whether he feels that the show has achieved that yet. Also being a seasoned veteran in the television industry, Derricks shares many similar opinions with the affably cantankerous Rhys-Davies when it comes to creative and imaginative writing.
“It’s what the producers always tell us — ‘We are a far cry from what we were last year.’ But in all honesty, we still haven’t reached it, something else is out there that we haven’t touched on yet. It’s like John says, ‘You know, we haven’t even begun to do this show yet.’ And it’s the truth, we really haven’t. The imaginations haven’t stretched as far as they can with a show like this. I just have this sense as an actor and as an artist that we are missing something. I am not a writer, so all I can say is that when I read what comes in, if there is not a whole lot of gratification there because my palate is not satisfied, my imagination is not stretched, my character’s imagination isn’t stretched, so their depths aren’t stretched, then the audiences can’t get a chance to really see us in a full, complete picture. Sometimes we have hit it, like with the idea of a living flame you can communicate with. Or there was a disease and none of it was curable because there was no basic penicillin. Now that is interesting to me, and I think that is interesting to the audience. We just did a show where a man is able to carry a baby.”
Where Rhys-Davies wishes to focus on socio-politico-scientific issues, and O’Connell and Lloyd parallel their own growth with the maturation of their characters, Derricks sees Rembrandt as a universal character. It is apparent than when Derricks talks about Rembrandt, he is quite passionate about him. One quickly learns that he has this vision that Rembrandt is essentially a part of everyone in the audience.
“I want to see Rembrandt grow, yet I see him as universal. He touches the hearts of all races and all people who are blue-collar workers, because he is the layman, the bridge that helps all the non-brains understand what is going on. I want to see a layman come into a situation like this and learn from his peers, ask questions and contribute rather than just standing around being the funny man. I don’t mind humor, but perhaps with Rembrandt’s street knowledge he has a different sense about people as compared to those who just hit the books all the time. So as he is learning and asking questions, the audience is learning and could be asking the questions. If I can understand and learn, then when I’m hit with a similar situation I don’t need to rely on Arturo or Q-Ball. [Rembrandt affectionately calls Quinn ‘Q-Ball’] This way we all grow as beings.”
When asked to define his character, he answers, “Believe it or not, I am still looking for him. I am still searching for who he was in the past in order to know where he is going. We know he was in the navy and has a family that he cares about. Some producers have suggested to have Rembrandt grow up with his mother, with his father not around. I am like, ‘Guys, that is every black man’s story on TV.’ I would really like it if we could just bring him up as a blue-collar kid who was involved in church music, and maybe he couldn’t find his foundation because of a lot of things he saw in church he didn’t particularly care about. There was a lot of things growing up as a kid that I saw in church where I would think, ‘Hey, wait a minute, you are saying this, but you are doing this, I don’t get it.’ So things like that affect you as an actor coming to a character, and you want to bring a little bit of that to your character, but you must also stretch that into an avenue that you have never been before. I have never been in the military, so I find that fascinating about the character. It gives him discipline, a sense of taking care of himself and those around him, and not thinking so much of himself. Last season Rembrandt was a bit of a dark horse, and then they wanted to move him away from the buffoonery and laughter of what he was in the first season, but I think they went a little bit far into the dark side so there was no real personality at all. So now we are trying to strike a happy medium between the two. This guy is a musician. It doesn’t mean that he is not intelligent, he is just from another walk of life, and that has to be interesting to the audience to combine the personalities together.
“It is very difficult for a writer to write black characters, particularly for white writers. I tell the writers from time to time because they seem to have this idea that they have to write black, that blackness is not some foreign element to any human being. A human being is a human being. I’ll bring whatever is black to it. Which is an important aspect for the writer to keep in mind. I mean, John is not a professor, but he brings to Arturo what he feels a professor is and it is also a part of John. It’s the same for Jerry and Sabrina. We all bring certain things to our characters that makes us unique and different. But I am a black man. You look at me on TV and you see a black man; you don’t have to put in his slang or the way he talks. I’ll do that. All I want a writer to do is write him as a human being. And I think that is the problem a lot of the time when you have white writers who feel like they have to write for a black character. You write for a person. If they are Asian, Indian, or whatever, the actor will bring in whatever culture is needed for that part.”
Derricks’ other credits on television include starring in such series as Drexell’s Class and Whoops. He has also guest starred on several series, including Roseanne, Thea, L.A. Law, A Different World, and one of his fondest memories, a recurring character on The Equalizer.
Far too soon, my 12 hour visit to the set of Sliders has come to an end. But unlike the characters played by my four newfound friends, I can return home, while our heroic quartet must continue its stay on yet another parallel Earth, a magical world that only exists at Universal Studios and each week on our television sets. Sliders can be seen in the United States on Friday nights at 8:00, and in the United Kingdom on Tuesday at 20:00 on Sky 2.
The vortex opens yet again, ready to transport us to a brave new world. Come — the adventure of a lifetime continues.
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