Halle Berry doesn’t say “yes” to television work every day, but Steven Spielberg is a powerful lure.
The Oscar-winning actress stars in the executive producer’s home-screen latest project as CBS debuts the sci-fi thriller series “Extant” Wednesday (July 9). No one connected to the show seems to mind any thematic references to last year’s Oscar-winning movie “Gravity” as Berry plays another woman in space, this one newly returned home from a yearlong solo mission … but with a very unexpected development.
She discovers she’s pregnant, and if she’s confounded by the news, so are loved ones including her husband (Goran Visnjic, “ER”) and a doctor friend (Camryn Manheim, “The Practice”). Also factoring into the story is the married couple’s humanoid son (Pierce Gagnon), who’s at the crux of a scientific debate over what constitutes a soul.
Michael O’Neill (“Bates Motel”), Hiroyuki Sanada, Annie Wersching (“24”) and Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer (“The Newsroom”) are among other “Extant” cast members.
“I’m a fan of sci-fi, but I’m even more a fan of Steven Spielberg sci-fi, which is more supernatural,” Berry tells Zap2it. “I love that this show is rooted solidly in strong characters before you get into the otherworldly aspects. You first get to know this family, and I think it’s a beautiful set-up for what’s to come as we get further and further into the series.”
Indeed, “Extant” is based on Earth for a number of its initial scenes before the first flashback-cued sighting of a space station. Berry deems her character, Molly, “an everyday woman. Sure, she has an extraordinary job – I’m not suggesting that people go into space in a pedestrian way – but at the end of the day, she’s fighting for what every woman would fight for, and that’s her baby. No matter what that is, it’s hers, and it’s part of her.”
“Extant” was created by another of the series’ executive producers, Mickey Fisher, who had written the pilot simply on spec. He acknowledges that the success Spielberg, his Amblin Television firm and CBS had with “Under the Dome” last summer “really opened the door for us.
“I’d carried the idea around in my head in different versions,” Fisher notes. “At one point, it was going to be a one-person play. Then about three years ago, I moved out to L.A. go try to break into TV, and I did the thing they always tell you to do as a writer: ‘Write the show that you would want to watch.’ “
Enter Spielberg, who became a patron of “Extant” early on. “Even just the possibility that he would read it at all,” Fisher reflects, “that the most successful filmmaker of all time was going to read something I wrote, that in and of itself is a surreal thought. Then to hear that he liked it and that it was going forward … I tell people that I sat and stared at a wall for 15 minutes, trying to wrap my head around it.”
The executive producers of “Extant” also came to include showrunner Greg Walker, a veteran of series including “Vegas” and “The X-Files.” He reasons, “We learned a lot from watching Steven Spielberg as kids. All those movies have family elements that are deeply embedded in the mythology of the storytelling. Its like playing with a really great tennis player when we pitch him ideas; if you hit a really good, hard shot, he’ll return it and elevate your game.”
The fact that “Extant” tackles big issues within a science-fiction wrapping was another major appeal for Berry.
“That’s one of the reasons I love being a part of the ‘X-Men’ movie series as well,” she says. “It puts those social questions out there. This one addresses nature vs. nurture, and what it is to be human – can we teach a machine to have human qualities and to love? This show is so layered, and not just in being set 30 years in the future. It deals with issues we face today, for sure.”
(An interesting note: Though the end credits on broadcast series now tend to fly by at breakneck speed, eagle-eyed viewers may notice a Malia Obama listed as an “Extant” production assistant. For anyone who might wonder, yes, it is THAT Malia Obama.)
“Extant” is not Berry’s first television series, though one has to go back quite a way for that. It was “Living Dolls,” a 1989 ABC spinoff of “Who’s the Boss?” about young fashion models. After establishing her film stardom, she returned to TV in the HBO drama “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (which earned her an Emmy, among many other awards) and the Oprah Winfrey-backed ABC projects “The Wedding” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”
“To me, some of the best writing is on television,” Berry maintains, “and I love the turns that it’s taken. I also love that it’s quickly becoming no division between film actors and TV actors. It’s becoming OK to go wherever the good writing is, wherever the great characters and storytelling are … and if truth be told, it’s becoming a lot easier for people to see your work on television.”
The owner of a best actress Oscar for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” Berry calls the movie world “a hazy place to me right now. It’s hard to understand which films are able to get made, and what moviegoers who actually go out and buy tickets really want to see. I think television is becoming an important medium for actors who just want to work. And do good work.”