Uphill Slide

by James G. Boutilier

Dreamwatch #51
November 1998

What if you could slide into a thousand different worlds, where it’s the same year and you’re the same person, but everything else is different? An what if you can’t find your way home?

Starring as the intelligent and all round good guy Quinn Mallory on Sliders has brought Jerry O’Connell to the limelight of young actors, and now, director/producers. And after three years in the lead role and this season becoming a producer, Jerry has brought his younger brother Charlie on board as the newest member of the Sliders gang.

It’s obvious from talking with the brothers that the pair is just what this newly revamped show needed. With Jerry’s experience and familiar presence both in front of and behind the camera, and brother Charlie providing the fresh, naive element, coupled with returning regular Cleavant Derricks and third season addition Kari Wuhrer, Sliders has impressed both its old and new audience alike.

“I think the Sci-Fi Channel wanted to bring a younger appeal to the show,” Jerry O’Connell says. “We lost two of our cast members last season, both of whom were older, and when I came on I think they wanted a youthful voice in the production end of it and I was the first to accept. I did graduate NYU Film and it’s always been a sort of ambition to get behind the camera — I jumped right on it!”

The actors have long believed that the show needed to be more elementary — better written, with less glitz. so did they feel the need to really come through with a strong new direction in Season 4? “Yeah,” Jerry agrees. ” and I thing we did. I think actually a lot of it had to do with the fact that the show had to become more cerebral because a quarter of the production values that we had last season couldn’t be there this season. We were forced to go back to go back to our laptops and write deeper scenes for our main characters. So you will not hear a complaint out of our actors this season because we really got to work. More cerebral and intelligent shows have always been my favorite sci-fi shows. If you look at Twilight Zone, they really didn’t have much of a budget to work with either, I think they made one of the most intelligent shows ever on television.”

The cast agrees that the change of network was what Sliders needed and it gave them the room to develop personal relationships which were sorely lacking in years past. “I think that has a lot to do with the direction we chose to go in this season,” Jerry states. “It’s become more of an odyssey and we have to get home. You find in the first episode that my character isn’t actually from where he believes he’s from (actually he’s from a parallel Earth) and it becomes sort of a trek to get home and I think that really helps. I think that goal to be attained at- however many seasons we do — is always there.”

After three years as Quinn and now having creative freedom as a producer and director, you would think Jerry might have a strong sense of confidence. However he admits that the departure of John Rhys-Davies made him very nervous. “I think that he added a lot to our show. No matter how crazy or zany the show got, the second that Rhys-Davies would explain it, it would all make sense because he’s got one of those authoritative, professional personae.

“I was kind of afraid because I thought, ‘Oh my gosh I’m gonna be the lead guy here, I’m going to have to be doing a lot of scientific explaining’. Now you’re talking to somebody who failed algebra, so I was a little worried at first. But once my brother came on, and I saw the energy and excitement that was not only coming from us personally, but it was happening on screen, it was coming back in future scripts. I really think the Charlie and I sort of set the show ablaze with excitement, and it’s a much faster pace, crazier, freakier, better show. I had the time of my life working on this.”

Jerry admits that his brother’s advent on the show was down to his influence. So what did Charlie O’Connell think when his brother brought the idea of joining the show to him? “‘Great, I can start paying some bills.’ I had such a great time working on the show with the other three characters, and I’m a huge science fiction fan. So being able to work on a Sci-Fi show was terrific. It’s like making a little movie every week on an hour show where we have the opportunity to slide into anything. I loved it.”

Charlie plays Colin Mallory, Quinn’s brother from an alternate Earth who was separated from him at birth. Colin embodies a new sense of wonder at sliding and the technologically evolved world in general. And to his expense, he is also the new comedic element! “That’s the way it started because I’m new to sliding and I kept it fresh because of that. But they’ve been doing it so long, and here I am and I have a whole new outlook on it, which is great. I think as it goes on I have more experience and I come around.”

“I watched it every week from the first episode, I never missed,” Charlie adds. ” I knew all about it coming on. I think the only person that knows more is my mother. I think it’s definitely taken a big change from the first episode to now. Just with the characters changing the show changes. From the beginning, it was [John] the professor and Jerry the student, and now it’s come more to a show with Jerry being the main character, and Cleavant taking a great turn on his role. I think it’s a much more rounded show now.”

How has Quinn’s change of circumstance affected Jerry? “This season not only was I behind the camera with directing, producing, and writing one of the episodes, my character had a lot of growing up to do as well. And I think this has been a pretty big year for me, not only personally, professionally, but from my character’s stand point, he really had to grow up.”

To actor Cleavant Derricks, who plays ‘Crying Man’ Rembrandt Brown, Sliders seems to have become more gritty, more rudimentary sci-fi. “Any time you lose someone like John Rhys-Davies you’ve got to do something. I think we felt like we had to get more into the writing, the quality of scripts. I don’t know if they are better quality, but at least they give us something more of a substance for the characters. This season we have all new writers and one executive producer, so you don’t have a lot of people in the executive position who have different ideas about the show. You have one focus.

“I think last year we hit some moments with Rembrandt that began to stretch him out of the stereotypical black character that was always looming there. When I read my character, I was reluctant to even go in for it because I felt he was written a little over the top whereas the other characters were human and I felt very strong about it. My wife said, ‘I think you should go for it, you might need to contribute something to the character that will make him more human.’ When the pilot came out, most of the reviews was pretty much as I expected, this character was one of those ‘bigger than life, flamboyant, stereotypical, what are you gonna do?’ black characters. Then the show gets picked up and I’m going. ‘Wow, maybe there’s a chance to play with this guy’. So I go to the producers and said ‘Can we do something with this character? Can we tone him down a little bit and make him a little more human? Keep his humor, I love his humor, but don’t have the audience laughing at him, let them laugh with him.’ Well it took about three seasons to do that.

“This season I feel much better about the character. So I feel there’s been a growth from the beginning, I’m glad I stayed with the show and with the character, and I’m glad I was able to contribute — along with the writers and the producers- something that gives the character a little more substance, growth and not let him get in trouble all the time and the other characters get him out. I like him using his common sense and street smarts, making decisions. This character is growing and moving on.

“Being the oldest out of all the characters, he’s not going to accept what Quinn is gonna say all the time. I never want to lose the fact that Rembrandt is the audience participation in sliding because he’s not the scientist. He’s the everyday, blue-collar worker. He’s the one who doesn’t have the brilliant mind, but he can at least use his common sense and survive. And that’s what I always wanted about this guy. I think we touched on it last season, which I owe a lot to John Rhys-Davies for speaking out.”

Derricks and the cast are having a great time, especially with Jerry O’Connell behind the camera as well. “Yeah, I love this guy for so many reasons. He’s a bright young man that loves to come to work and play. I love to play when I go to work, to do my homework, know my character, but I have a chance, if I don’t feel right about something, to voice my opinion about it and Jerry can say I’m right. Nobody knows these characters like we know these characters, so you’ve got somebody who is in your corner. I’ve had such joy with Jerry on this show. He’s always been that way from day one. He’s never had that ego thing, he’s very bright and has a sense of humor and loyalty to his character and the characters. I love the fact that he directs because he knows what he wants and you don’t waste time guessing. He went to school to do this and he can do it. I always felt it’s long overdue for Jerry. It’s been his show.”

What changes does he think we are going to notice this time around? “You’re gonna see something of Rembrandt that you haven’t seen which is, what is Rembrandt’s real substance, what are the things he truly believes in, what are the things that he is wrestling with inside? I think you’re going to get the essence of all the characters. You’re going to see these characters show their emotional stress, so you’re gonna see growth, real human elements — which is what I think the audience is looking for in a show like Sliders.

“Enough of the giant spiders, enough of the dinosaurs, the hurricane worlds, which were a lot of rip-offs of a lot of films last year. Sliders had to go back to what it was that made Sliders Sliders. I believe it’s people looking at these characters and being able to see these characters going through something, trying to look for a home. It’s Dorothy trying to get back home again. It’s the good guys who come to town, clean it up and move on.

“We have spin-offs, different story lines where maybe Quinn and Maggie are doing something and Rembrandt is on his own, or Maggie and Rembrandt is off and it’s Quinn and another character. I don’t think you can get character growth when you’re all together all the time. Rembrandt isn’t from a scientific mould. I don’t think he should go into that mould, but he can learn. He can remember that in this past episode or on that world the Professor did this or that. I think the audience would expect Rembrandt to learn from it and be able to grow.”

Of course, what would Sliders be without the Kromaggs, and Captain Maggie Beckett? “You’re gonna see a lot of the Kromaggs this season which I’m glad of because I’ve always liked the idea of them. You’re gonna see a lot of humor (with Kari Wuhrer), you’re gonna see her as a real tough Captain Beckett that was in last season where it was hard for you to get into her. You’re gonna see her soften up, have a sense of humor, but she is gonna be tough when it needs for her to be tough. But again, with all of us you’re gonna find that human element which the Sci Fi Network asked of the show.”

And what about the departed Sabrina Lloyd’s character, Wade? “We’re looking for her this season but we’re not looking for her,” says Derricks. ” Mostly we’re looking for home, and you’re gonna find out that Quinn and I are not from the same world. My world has been taken over by the Kromaggs. So now I have no home, Quinn has no home and Maggie has no home. It becomes more of a searching for our home. We have to find Quinn’s original home then I can go on with my life, which is probably to try to bring to other worlds a weapon to defeat the Kromaggs.”

This SF appreciating actor appears to be at home on the revamped show: “I’ve always liked science fiction in comic books, I’ve always been in the Jules Verne novels, I always loved those as a kid. When you grow up you put some things away… I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi but never in my wildest dreams imagine that I would be doing a sci-fi show. Now that I’m in it, particularly with Sliders, I love it. I think it’s the best form of television that you can play because it stimulates minds, it’s adventuresome. (It has) all of the elements I think it takes to have positive television; I think sci-fi has that, and this show has that. It is by far the best time I’ve had in television in my career.”

Season three introduced Kari Wuhrer’s Maggie Beckett as a hard hitting, tom-boyish outsider. This season sees a more sexy and engaging Maggie, without losing her tough, ‘take no crap’ attitude. “I think whereas Maggie went along for the ride in Season 3, in Season 4 she is a very strong and important force to the group,” Wuhrer maintains. “She has guts and ability, intelligence and a little bit of wit. And now they’re all very emotionally involved. She’s now a friend, they care about her and she cares about them. The conflict comes from her wanting to have things her own way still but she’s now motivated not by revenge and hatred as in Season 3 but by friendship, love and seeing that her friends get home. In this coming season now I think she is really well defined. She plays a lot more of her vulnerability without losing that attitude and strength, which is inevitably what I want her to achieve.”

It doesn’t hurt that the show has moved to the Sci-Fi Channel either. It must be refreshing to be out from under the bad tag Fox caused the series. “I’d almost get embarrassed to be a part of it. I’m the one representing the scripts that we’re given. Now that we’re on the Sci-Fi Network we’ve had nothing but encouragement, we’ve had an incredible executive producer who has given us so much creative juice to work with. I’m really proud with the accomplishments that season… (and) we came in under budget almost every single show, which as an actor might not mean that much to me, but it does.”

Having come to the show mid-third season, did Wuhrer foresee its cancellation by Fox? “Yeah, because every time I do one on Fox, it gets cancelled,” she laughs. But that’s all water under the bridge now that they’ve found a new home, “We were told of the potential for another network early on. When they said the Sci-Fi Channel, I said ‘Wow this is great! This is a perfect place for us. the fans are extremely dedicated, it the perfect forum.’

“We definitely focused more on the human element of science fiction rather that blowing it out with special effects. The new writers that came in used four characters to create stories from that vantage point. We tried to let every story affect the main characters rather than the guest stars.

“I love the work that Cleavant and I do together, I love the relationship between Maggie and Rembrandt now. He brings so much depth to his character this season. I think he found freedom when the change was made also… He’s a very nurturing guy, so he brings that to his character. But it’s not without conflict. In the first episode coming back he makes me angry, and even though I haven’t seen him in 3 months — he was in a Kromagg camp — there’s no time for weakness. Quinn and Maggie are like the book ends, we hold everybody else together and don’t have as much physical interaction, but it’s silent and it’s there.”

And with a shuffled cast and a new network comes a new story line. The Kromaggs have dominated many Earths and it’s up to the Sliders to deal with them. There’s a lot more depth to the Kromaggs now that there ever was. They’re actually now a real threat rather than some goofy guys running around in masks. The basic premise now is that the Kromaggs are trying to conquer as many dimensional Earths as they can. As we’re sliding we run into them quite a bit, and it’s our mission now to stop them, which is great. The only problem I have with the Kromaggs is that they had to get their make-up on in our make-up trailer and the smell of those chemicals was just killing me!”

Have there been any particularly memorable episodes for her? “We have a Western episode (Way Out West) which really came out well, Which Jerry O’Connell had the story idea for. I also had a great time doing an episode called Just Say Yes. It was when Charlie just started and Charlie and I got to be strung out on drugs the entire show.”

And there’s still a possible romantic entanglement with Maggie and the apparent love-doomed Quinn. “Yeah. There is a very interesting episode where it takes me through our entire courting, marriage, our children and our old age, which shows what could have been if we weren’t so stubborn.”

This season also has Maggie interacting with new character Colin. “Charlie O’Connell is a piece of work. He works really hard. His character is just developmentally slower technologically. So he’s not stupid, he’s just really green and innocent. And he’s so funny that way he plays it.

“We have a whole new comedic element to the show now, and just the bond between brothers, it’s really nice. We have four very different points of view now.”

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