by David Richardson
A Cult Times teaser: what’s the link between Sliders and top Hollywood star Tom Cruise? The answer is Jerry O’Connell, who plays Quinn Mallory in the popular Science Fiction saga, and has a hit movie on his hands with Jerry Maguire, in which he plays one of Cruise’s co-stars.
Yet celluloid stardom is nothing new for O’Connell, who came to the recognition as a teenager in Stand By Me, the acclaimed adaptation of Stephen King’s short story about four children who discover a dead body.
As he matured O’Connell took a break from acting to further his education, but came back to the screen with Sliders, playing the brilliant physicist who has discovered a way of traveling between alternative dimensions.
The series has suffered some patchy scripts and has faced cancellation more than once, before re-defining itself in its third season with top-notch storylines that have attracted a wider audience.
Cult Times recently traveled to the set of Sliders at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, and met with Jerry O’Connell during a break in filming the third season episode The Fire Within.
How did you originally become involved with Sliders?
I was going to NYU film school; I was a junior and I wanted to get back into acting. I knew that graduation was a year away, and it would be time to get a real job and I thought “Why get a real job when I have a shot at acting”, which is a lot more fun than working in an office. I told my agent I would be interested in doing a pilot, and you get sent the usual scripts. Sliders was one of the two hour pilots that I got.
What was your first initial reaction to the script of that first episode?
I remember thinking after reading it, “Wow this would be a great show if it ever became a series”. The unlimited storylines were there — you could go to any world. I really went all out and tried to get it.
The show has been through a number of false starts — the curtailment of the first season and a short second season — before being commissioned for a full run with series three. Has this uncertainty been frustrating the cast?
It was little crazy. I kind of like it because I was able to go back to school and finish up because it wasn’t a full season where you work eight months a year. It would have been a lot harder for me to graduate, but certainly working six months of the year allowed me to go back and get my diploma.
How has Sliders changed since the first season?
I think it has become a lot sharper. It’s a tough show to make because of the basic premise — it has no boundaries, so we can pretty much go to any world and we can make any show that we want to.
As an actor do you find the variety of Sliders satisfying?
That’s an appealing part about it: it does change every week and you can’t get bored with it. One of the toughest things about working in television is if you do get locked into a series for five years you’re saying the same lines in the fifth year as you were in the first year and you’re on the same set. But with Sliders we’re doing something completely different every week. Another fun thing is that we can portray ourselves as doubles, and that’s great because you’re not playing the same character every week, you’re constantly coming up with new ones. In television that’s unheard of, you’re constantly playing the same character, and that’s why a lot of actors hate TV. In one episode we go to a world where capital punishment is judged on television on a big game show and I got to play myself as a double — a hustler, a two-bit criminal. It was a lot of fun and I got to wear some flashy clothing. Sometimes I come into work on a Monday and I don’t even know which world we’re on. It’s a fun show, and it keeps you really interested.
The Fox Network has given Sliders a major boost of confidence by relocating the show’s production base from Vancouver to Los Angeles this year. Some viewers have also noted there has been an increase in the amount of action compared to previous seasons…
Yeah, I think we have more money now than we did then. The network made a commitment to the show and pumped some more bills into it, and that’s great because we can do bigger and better stunts, but the nice thing about Sliders is that it isn’t strictly an action show. It is very socially conscious, which is what the best Science Fiction is — if you ever see some of the early Twilight Zones… Sliders does make comments on our society using the disguise of parallel societies, so it’s nice in that sense — we don’t feel that we’re making a bubblegum action show.
You’re playing a scientist — are you at all interested in science yourself?
He was getting his doctorate in physics when he left the world he was on. That’s a lot of fun for me to play because I know nothing about physics, and science and math were my weakest points at school. It’s very educational for me. But at the same time he’s a 25 year old kid and he’s thrown into this crazy situation a lot of times his science does help him but he also has to rely on his basic idea for self preservation. It’s a nice balance for me — I get to play a brain and at the same time a leading action guy.
Certainly Quinn seems far more realistic and accessible in the latest episodes — less of a science geek and more of an everyday kind of guy…
Maybe that has a little to do with me. I graduated school, I moved out to LA, I’m shaving once every other day now… also three years is a long time and characters develop. I think of all the characters mine has developed the least. I think the Professor has come a long way and Crying Man has really done a real turnaround, and also Wade Welles is a lot stronger now than when we first started. The producers are very close to the cast and really work with them, it’s a real team effort.
Do you ever find yourself having a shower in the morning or just driving the car and suddenly thinking, “Hey wouldn’t it be great if we did an episode where…”
Yeah, but it’s kind of impossible to work on the show and not have those flashes. The fun thing about it is I’ll be in a bar at night and someone will say, “Hey, Sliders right?” and I’ll say, “Yeah”. And they’ll say, “You know what would be a great idea for a world…” A lot of people say that, and again that’s basically what attracted me to the show in the first place — that the basic premise sparks imagination.
Do you have any aspirations to write and episode?
I wrote an issue of the comic and that was a lot of fun. Basically we go to a world where narcotics are not only legal; but they’re pumped into food and water. You come up with hundreds of ideas, and you can just go from there. It must be fun for the writers but it also must be kind of frustrating. It must be like “OK, we have to get some order to this madness…”
Sliders is broadcast in America in a prime time slot on Friday nights. You were originally placed immediately before The X-Files, until that series moved to Sunday nights and Millennium began. Have there been any concerns among the cast and crew that the family orientated content of Sliders and the very adult packaged Millennium make an uneasy package?
First of all, I love The X-Files — I think it’s one of the best TV shows ever made — and I’ve seen Millennium and it’s right up there. Our show is not quite as dark as theirs, partly because we’re on at 8pm but also because the fact that there are four main characters in this show it’s a real diverse crowd and when you get diverse crowds like this it’s impossible not to have fun.
There seems to be a very relaxed atmosphere on set — everyone is extremely friendly…
We have such a blast on set, and that comes out on the show. It’s such a good time, the cast is the best, John Rhys Davies [who plays Professor Maximillian Arturo] — what more can you say? Cleavant Derricks [Rembrandt ‘Crying Man’ Brown], the guy’s a Tony winner — he won in 1984 for Dream Girls, he’s super-talented. That’s what helps us not to be so dark, but we’re not a peachy keen show — it gets pretty hairy at times.
Are there any episodes of Sliders that you feel are particularly dark in tone?
We’ve got one episode, The Dream Masters, directed by Jefery Levy, and it’s pretty freaky. Making it I was freaked out, but I saw the cut and it’s a little frightening — and I’m a hard scare!
The final episode of the second season also seemed quite menacing, as it introduced and alien race that could slide…
Yeah, and I think they’re going to come back, but I’m not sure. Tracy Tormé, the guy who created the show, came up with that storyline and he’s a whacky one. He always comes out with these freaky scripts — it’s fun to see what he comes out with.
Sliders has amassed a following of loyal fans. Have you had much contact with your audience?
I’ve done a couple of conventions. Science Fiction fans are like a double edged sword — they’re the best and most loyal fans in the world, and at the same time they’re the most critical. I go online a lot and I check out what’s going on the Sliders web site and some of these people know more about the details of the show than I do! I think making a Science Fiction show brings everybody up to another level, because they know the fans are really watching and there’s no room for error. But I like that — it adds a little pressure.
You recently portrayed the football player Frank ‘Cush’ Cushman in Jerry Maguire. What attracted you to the part?
The opportunity to work with [director] Cameron Crowe. I can tell you, as a 22 year old, that his work appeals to a lot of people in my generation. So when I read the script, I went after the role pretty hard.
How would you describe Cush?
I think the character of Cush says something not only about athletes today, but society in general. It’s no longer about being part of a team and having your heart in the game. It’s also about money, entertainment. Jerry Maguire is trying to convince everyone that it’s about heart, but he’s pretty much the only one who feels that way. He’s the last real martyr.
What can you reveal about the Sliders episode you are shooting today, The Fire Within?
This week we’re in fire world — we go to a world where natural gases are abundant and fires are all over the place, and then we go to an oil refinery world and bring back some fire with us. This week it’s pretty hot on set!
Do you think that because of this limited format, Sliders has the potential to carry on forever?
It could, it really could.
If the series does run for a long time, will you stick with it?
As an actor you try and so as many parts as possible, and that’s where the challenge comes. But Sliders keeps it rolling — it’s impossible to get bored.
It’s a ludicrous question, but if a portal to another dimension were to open right next to you now, would you step through it?
Probably not. I’m kind of chicken, and I’m not into this ‘no fear’ mantra. I go skiing, and I like to stay on the beginners’ slopes. I’ve been invited to go sky diving a couple of times, and I will do that. I certainly would not step through a portal. If someone told me it would mean five seasons on a TV show, I might!
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