Ticket to Slide

by David Bassom

TV Zone #90
May 1997

As Quinn Mallory, Jerry O’Connell visits new dimensions each week in Sliders. Yet if he had to leave our plane of reality and travel to an alternate Earth, it is unlikely he would do so. Our world has been very kind to the young actor. O’Connell is not leading man in a hit television show, but also has a flourishing film career, with major roles in Stand By Me, Joe’s Apartment and Jerry Maguire to his credit. Furthermore, he recently made his professional writing and directing debuts with an issue of the Sliders comic strip and a third season episode of Sliders respectively. Oh, and he just celebrated his 23rd birthday.

“Everything’s been going really well,” says O’Connell.” I’ve been very fortunate. When I graduated from college, I thought to myself, ‘You know, maybe I’ll try my hand at acting for a while.’ It’s actually turning into a career, which has taken me totally by surprise.”

Infinite Possibilities

O’Connell first became involved with Sliders during his final year of studying at New York University Film School. Realizing that the pilot season was about to begin, the actor asked his agent to find him a suitable role in a TV series. Of all the scripts that came his way, O’Connell was most impressed by the Sliders pilot, a Science Fiction adventure series which followed the dimension-hopping adventures of Quinn Mallory and his fellow travelers, Wade Welles (Sabrina Lloyd), Rembrandt ‘Crying Man’ Brown (Cleavant Derricks) and Professor Maximillian Arturo (John Rhys-Davies).

“When you’re an actor and you go up for pilot season, you basically get sent about 100 scripts, 99 of which are pretty dreadful. There are only one or two that really stand out.” O’Connell explains. “I remember reading the Sliders pilot and thinking, ‘Wow, if this went on series the possibilities would be limitless because of the whole parallel universe theme. ‘So I really wanted it to go on. Part of my original attraction to Sliders was that it would be a different show and a different world every episode. The show would constantly be changing. I found that very appealing, and I think the audience does too.”

Despite its premise, Sliders has faced one problem after another since its debut in March 1995. The series narrowly escaped cancellation during its first and second seasons, while a number of creative disagreements led to several members of the show’s production staff moving on, including series creator Tracy Tormé.

Amidst this uncertain landscape, however, Sliders itself has gone from strength to strength. Its leading characters have become more believable, likeable and sympathetic than in the pilot, while its storylines are more unpredictable and imaginative. O’Connell its both proud and relieved that Sliders has made it to a third season.

“I really am surprised that we’re still around,” he admits. “The chances of a show making it past six episodes are pretty slim. But making it three years is a real long shot. We’ve had a very good fan base on-line who were really responsible for keeping us on the air, so I’m very grateful to them.”

The X-Factor

One of the biggest changes to the production of Sliders came when the series moved from Vancouver to Universal Studios in Los Angeles for its third season. O’Connell believes that this has helped the show immensely.

“When we were up in Vancouver for the first two seasons, the weather made it a very dark show,” he explains. “It was constantly raining there, which gave Sliders a very dark X-Files look to it. Now that we’re out here in Los Angeles, where it’s sunny all the time, the show has a bit of a brighter and more colorful look. In Sliders, we go to different worlds each week, and moving to Los Angeles has been like going to different world, so the move is very in keeping with the show.”

The move from Vancouver has meant that the cast and crew of Sliders no longer get to spend time with their X-Files counterparts, who were based on the adjacent film lot. In particular, Jerry O’Connell misses his regular basketball matches with FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, alias David Duchovny. When asked who would usually win their contests, O’Connell gives a diplomatic response. “I have to say that Duchovny’s got the outside shot, but on the inside I can pretty much take him,” he laughs. “I have a couple of inches’ advantage!”

The various setbacks haven’t prevented the very different quartet of regulars from becoming good friends both on and off the screen.

“We’re a very amiable group here on Sliders,” remarks O’Connell. “Working on this show has definitely been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had with a cast. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I think it was last Thanksgiving that we were shooting on location in Vancouver, and they don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving up there. All the Americans were working that day, and we all felt a bit homesick by the end of it. At the end of the shoot, John Rhys-Davies said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to have a little party tonight — nothing formal, but just stop by.’ When we got there, he had a 25-pound turkey roasted and ready for us! I was like, ‘All right, this is my new family!’ I think I had a better time there than I would have done with my real family.”

Writing and Directing

O’Connell hasn’t confined his association with Sliders to the small screen. He has represented the series at several Science Fiction conventions, corresponded with the show’s fans via the Internet, and even written for the Sliders comic strip.

“Working on the comic was a blast, ” he says. “I studied writing at film school, but with comic book writing, you’re not only writing the dialogue, but you’re also describing the images that you have in mind. They give you a budget of so many panels and you basically have to budget out your story and write dialogue for it. It was a real treat.”

Most recently, O’Connell made his professional debut with the late third season installment for Sliders. “It’s a rock ‘n’ roll vampire episode, ” he reveals. “Basically, there’s this rock band of vampires who go on tour from town to town, picking out their prey, and Wade Welles gets wrapped up in their scene. It’s going to have a nice German expressionistic look to it — very industrial and very monochromatic. It’s going to be a lot like Fritz Lang movies such as Metropolis.”

Rock ‘n’ roll vampires, dimension-conquering aliens, gun-toting business executives, lawyers, futuristic witch-doctors… Where else would you find such diversity other than Sliders? For O’Connell, the two best things about starring in the show are its variety and unpredictability.

“In most series, you’re always in an Emergency Room, or a law office, or a police precinct, but in Sliders, it’s a different world every week. We frequently meet ourselves as doubles, or we’re constantly creating new characters, and don’t get bored of their own characters. It’s very tough working on a show where you play the same character every single day for up to eight years, it it’s a hit show. It’s very limiting. With Sliders, the possibilities are limitless.”

Looking back at every slide Quinn Mallory has taken over the past three years, O’Connell’s favourite took place in the second season episode Love Gods. “I really liked the episode where 90% of the male population of the world was wiped out because of a disease, and the remaining 10% were being used for breeding purposes only. I liked that ratio — you’re guaranteed a date there!”

Early Breaks

Born on February 17th, 1974, Jerry O’Connell was just 11 years old when he first shot to fame as Vern Tessio in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. “That was really a ‘right time, right place’ sort of thing,” he recalls. “They read about 500 kids for the part and I just happened to be the right age and the right weight, and I got it. Working on Stand By Me was a terrific experience. I was living in New York City and just doing acting as an after-school, extra-curricular activity, when I got cast in this film that was shooting in Oregon during the summer. So I got to spend the summer in Oregon and had a great deal of fun.”

Following Stand By Me, O’Connell swiftly amassed film and television credits, including My Secret Identity, Camp Wilder, The Room upstairs, Calendar Girl and Blue River. Last summer, he starred in Joe’s Apartment as an innocent young man who moves to New York City, only to learn that his apartment has 50,000 squatters — an army of smart-talking, all-singing, all-dancing cockroaches.

Joe’s Apartment was a really funny movie and definitely one of the best experiences of my career, ” says O’Connell. “First of all, got to live at home in New York, rather than be flown to Los Angeles or Vancouver. That was really nice. It was also a lot of fun because it was filmed entirely in the Lower East Side of New York, in these apartments that were disgusting and would never pass health codes. But that’s where you have to go if you want roaches! It was actually the roaches in the film who insisted that we shoot it there!”

Although Joe’s Apartment was not a hit at the American Box office, O’Connell is quick to point out that the film has gone on to be a huge hit on video, both in the States and in Britain. “It opened [theatrically] in the States last summer, and there were a lot big movies out then, so it had a lot of competition. But I really do think that it will become a cult hit on video.”

O’Connell’s most recent role came in Cameron Crowe’s Oscar-nominated romantic drama Jerry Maguire, opposite Tom Cruise. “It was such a great experience working on that. Cameron Crowe and the whole cast — Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr. — were all just wonderful. It was such a relaxed environment. It really didn’t feel like working; I felt like I was getting up and going to hang out with 10 or 12 of my best friends.”

Lucky, Lucky, Lucky

O’Connell’s star is certainly in ascendance, but the 23-year-old actor shows no signs of arrogance or pretension. “I if could describe myself in three words, it would be ‘lucky, lucky, lucky’,” he remarks. “I’ve been very fortunate so far in my career and I’m gong to ride this wave for as long as I can. I see acting as a job. It’s a great job because you meet a whole new group of people every time you walk on a set. It’s very unpredictable in some senses, but that’s what I think I like about it.”

Perhaps his down-to-earth nature stems from the fact that Jerry has British blood in his veins! Before our interview formally began, O’Connell was quick to point out that his father is a British expatriate, which means that he holds dual British/American citizenship. “It’s a very good feeling being part of the Commonwealth,” the actor grins. “I have family in England — my grandmother lives there, and I have a lot of aunts and uncles there too. They all watch Sliders on Sky, which is great.”

O’Connell is keeping his fingers crossed that Sliders will be renewed for a fourth season, which would begin shooting some time around June. Summing up his time with the show, he says that it has been an invaluable learning experience. “Like my character, I think I’ve grown and matured over the past three years. Working on the show was a lot harder than I expected. When I started, I just thought, ‘Hey yeah, I’ll do a TV show’, and now I realize just how much hard work it is. But it’s been great.”

As with shows such as Quantum Leap and Star Trek: Voyager, Sliders ultimately revolves around a quest for its lead characters’ place of origin. Does Jerry O’Connell think that Quinn Mallory and his fellow Sliders ever will make it back to home, to Earth Prime?

“Of course, I would never want us to go home — I want to see us go on forever,” he replies. “But I think you would see the show ending with us at home. The show has a sort of Wizard of Oz theme — you know, there’s no place like home. You have your four characters romping through all these crazy experiences, and I think at the end you’ll see them get home. But I also think that that no one here would like to see that happen for a long time.”

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