Jason Momoa calls his role in See, the upcoming post-apocalyptic Apple TV + series, a dream job
In the Apple TV Plus series See, humanity not just survives but learns to adapt in a world without eyesight.
You wake up one morning to nothing but darkness. Reaching for the light through the dark with your hands pressed forward, you flip the switch but the darkness doesn't lift. Concerned that your eyes are deceiving you, you rub them harder than usual only to realise they're wide open and you've gone blind.
This might sound like a nightmare scenario. But in the near future of the Apple TV Plus series See, humanity not just survives but learns to adapt in a world without eyesight. When a viral epidemic wipes out most of mankind and renders the remaining survivors blind, they begin to rely on their other senses so much so that eyesight eventually becomes a myth. After several generations, when twins are born with the ability to see, their warrior father Baba Voss must protect them and his mountain-dwelling Alkenny tribe from the forces of evil — including a desperate monarch, who wishes to have them killed.
Playing the role of Baba Voss in this post-apocalyptic fairy tale is Game of Thrones and Aquaman star Jason Momoa, who leads an exceptional cast, including Alfre Woodard, Sylvia Hoeks, Hera Hilmar, Christian Camargo, Archie Madekwe, Nesta Cooper and Yadira Guevara-Prip.
Being in the same room as Momoa oddly produces the same effect as watching him on-screen: It's impossible not to admire his physique, which is more fitting of a deity than a mortal. But there's also a Hawaiian laidbackness and a charming personality to match. He is glad he finally gets to be a father and have a family as the last time he was a tribal chieftain — the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, things didn't quite end well for him.
Just like HBO's Game of Thrones, Apple has spared no expense in the production of See. The mountains, rainforests, river streams and waterfalls of Vancouver Island in British Columbia provide the perfect backdrop to the show's action and drama. Momoa admits, "It's a dream job. Even though you're freezing your ass off, it's worth it outside." Alfre Woodard, who plays the village elder and mid-wife Paris, seconds the feeling. However, she had to internalise these feelings to portray a character who had never seen the beauty of these landscapes. "It was humbling and just recalibrating to be able to sit in that majesty. It didn't matter if you are frozen, you're hungry, and you couldn't go to the bathroom for 6-8 hours at a time," she says.
Due to the global popularity of Game of Thrones, travellers from around the world continue to flock to Croatia, Malta and other countries where the fantasy series was filmed. Woodard hopes the same thing doesn't happen following the release of See. "British Columbia still looks like the goddess just took the wrapping off of it. So, we hope people don't flock to it."
Between the trial of acting without seeing, seeing while acting blind and the dramatic chops required for the role, it was easily the most challenging role Momoa has had to play — and he acknowledges it straightaway. "It's impossible to be blind and really experience what they go through. We try to do the best we can in the limited time that we have. And it's challenging because obviously we can see while we're doing it, so we have a whole different technique on how to help us so that it's like we can see while we're doing it."
The entire cast and crew participated in several weeks of "blindness bootcamp" to familiarise themselves with sensory training. Hera Hilmar, the Icelandic actress who plays Momoa's on-screen wife Maghra, elaborates on the very first lesson. "The first exercise we did was we walked through the studios with sleepshades on. You have this tendency where you're like: 'Oh, I'm about to walk into something', and you're always going backwards. And that was a big thing for us to learn. Just getting comfortable to move in a space with sleep shades on to move fast, to fight and to dance or whatever we were doing was a big challenge."
Apple brought on board Joe Strechay as a blindness consultant, and Paradox Pollack as a supervising movement choreographer, to not only orient actors with sight to portray blindness with respect but to also help build an authentic blind civilisation. Momoa recalls how Joe traveled with the cast and crew through the mountains, forests and waterbodies of Vancouver Island, and was always on hand for guidance. "Some days, I'm not as sharp or I'm just forgetting something and he's there non-stop to remind us (of our training). And that's a huge safety net for us where we owe a lot of gratitude and respect for helping us."
Interestingly, Momoa reveals how he took home a habit after having acted blind for the role. "When I listen to someone, I find myself not making eye contact, of which I'm a big believer. I ask my children to make eye contact, shake your hand, look them in the eyes because that's how you should respect someone. But after doing that, it's not like I'm not not listening to you but I can hear so many more things going on in the room."
It's often said that the loss of one sense makes you pay attention to other sensory cues. So, the same applies to the people of See as their blindess has enhanced their other senses and many have built their skills around them. "For instance," Hilmar notes, "my character can hear really well and sense things differently. You're (Momoa's Baba Voss) an amazing fighter."
"Lover. Lover first, then fighter," Momoa hilariously intervenes to remind her of his foremost skill.
Aside from Maghra, another woman plays an equally prominent role in Baba Voss's life — Paris, who is not just a seer but the woman who took him in when he first came to Alkenny. "There's really two women I love, respect and listen to. It's my wife and mother figure. He (Voss) is really good at the things that he does. Everything else, he takes advice from his wife and falls in line. Even though he necessarily doesn't understand or doesn't agree to it, he is not gonna ask the questions about it because he's not built that way."
But not everyone in Alkenny trusts Paris and her clairvoyant abilities. Woodard tells us how she perceives her character: "I don't want her just to be a three-dimensional person. I want to be able to smell her. She is the oldest member in terms of the lineage of this group. If you have been in Alkenny for so long, the longest responsibility comes with that."
However, if there is one person you absolutely shouldn't trust in See, it's Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks), who combines Cersei's single-minded villainy with the White Witch's tyranny. The Dutch actor, who recently played Camilla Salander in The Girl in the Spider's Web, was instantly drawn to the character as soon as she read the script. "She's rich in conflict. You can't really follow what her actions are driven by: Is it emotion and ego? And if that gets off balance, you don't know what she'll do," she enthuses.
Momoa recalls an incident which highlights the show's attention to detail. "I was walking into my hut to get familiar with it. As I was walking in, I could see I'm gonna hit my head. And obviously it wasn't designed for a guy who's going to be that tall. So, they put horse hair. I could brush the horse hair. Then I knew I was at my door and I know when to duck. So, they watch out for everything and we're all watching out for each other. It's one big organism and we have to move together, or else, you pretty much die. Survival by yourself doesn't really work in this world."
Along with culture, even religion and traditions are bound to change in a post-apocalyptic society. For Queen Kane, an orgasm is about as close to God as she is ever going to get. So, it becomes a spiritual experience — a direct phone call to God. But for Hoeks, it was also about the need to normalise female sexuality — and the fact that women masturbate. "I just really felt the responsibility as a woman to portray a woman having an orgasm in a way that we don't normally see on screen," she says, before elaborating, "First of all, as a woman playing a masturbation scene while praying was, of course, very challenging. But as a woman on camera, I wasn't looking for being pretty, being sexy, or being feminine. Because she's totally alone in her palace, I wanted to search for that real animal, personal in her own space, praying, talking to God, and feeling. So, I didn't want the audience to be comfortable in a way because I feel there's something interesting about this woman and the way she talks to God. There's so much longing in there and so much pain that I wanted it to be uncomfortable. It is a very sensory thing because she can't see. So everything is done with other senses and since praying has become more sexual through the sensory experience, it's giving yourself to God. I felt it was my responsibility to make it disturbing."
In order to ensure it was a respectful, diverse and inclusive production, Apple hired blind and low vision cast and crew members. Marilee Talkington, one of the authentically cast actors on the show, plays Alkenny member Souter Bax who plots against Baba Voss with her husband, Gether Bax (Mojean Aria). Though an established New York stage actress, she reveals how blind people are usually typecast in the movies and TV shows. "When roles come out for blind, low vision characters, they usually fall into four categories: you're the inspiration, you're the pity, you're the person who wants to be cured, or you're the person who wants to die. And they get very, very narrow in terms of what disability is."
So, when Talkington got the role, she was elated to finally portray a character that had "nothing to do with blindness." "I get to play a really complex person that you don't get to see on TV. I don't talk about vision once. It has nothing to do with it. I wasn't thinking about the metaphor. I'm not interested in the metaphor. I'm interested in the human experience and the complexity of it. When you have an entire population that's blind, you have someone who's evil and good. At the same time, you have someone who is vulnerable, and fierce. At the same time, you have warriors, you have people who don't want to fight it all. You have everything in between. It has nothing to do with philosophy. Actually, it just has to do with the human experience being expressed in the moment." Though she adds she had to take the responsiblity of representation seriously, she still believes the art must always come first. "That will speak to more people than anything I can say in a room. And I hope people will break the limiting beliefs that they've had about us and create new ones that are inclusive."
Given the key role visual cues play in giving coherence to social categories of race and ethnicity, you would imagine humans beings would no longer discriminate and fight over such petty differences. Archie Madekwe and Nesta Cooper, who play the twins Kofun and Haniwa (the only two people with vision in a blind world), think different. "There will still be family conflicts. There are also smaller things where you might not like the smell of a tribe. It may no longer be race because nobody can see but there are still judgments. There are still conflicts. Those things find themselves in different ways and they play out in different ways," says Madekwe.
But he is glad to be part of a post-racial world. "We're both mixed race and it (the show) not being about the fact that we are mixed race is super-rare." Nesta Cooper chimes in, saying: "It's like in Broad City where Ilana Glazer says, in the future, everyone's going to be caramel and queer. And it's kind of an exciting world to think about, and we get to live in that world almost. It's the future that you want. It's not a dark future. It's a cool, exciting, fun one that's matched and melted and interesting."
See will premiere on Apple TV+ on 1 November. Viewers can watch it on the Apple TV app or online at tv.apple.com.