BY: BRYAN CAIRNS
MIKE VOGEL CONFRONTS ALIEN AGENDAS AND THE PRICE OF UTOPIA IN CHILDHOOD’S END
Mike Vogel started out as a model, but he soon discovered his true calling in Hollywood. Over the course of his career, he’s successfully navigated between feature films and television projects, including Grounded For Life, 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poseidon, Pan Am and Bates Motel. Now, in a follow-up to his three-season stint on CBS’s Under The Dome, Vogel stars in Childhood’s End, a miniseries premiering tonight on Syfy.
Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 science fiction novel of the same name, Childhood’s End centers on a peaceful race of aliens, dubbed the Overlords, that visits Earth to help mankind achieve Utopia. Vogel plays Ricky Stormgren, the reluctant liaison between humans and the Overlord Karellen (Charles Dance of Game Of Thrones). However, Ricky quickly learns peace comes with a steep price – one the planet might not be willing to pay.
SPINOFF: With credits that include Cloverfield, Under The Dome and now Childhood’s End, what is it about this genre that speaks to you? It’s funny, because I wouldn’t say that I’m a massive fan of the sci-fi genre. What I do love is unlike anything else; It gives the ability to ask really big questions, to confront people with big ideas, but dress them up in some other clothes, where it might be a little more palatable, and pose them in really imaginable ways through characters that may not be of this world. Somehow, we accept those ideas and questions a little easier than we would if it was posed in a real-life setting. That’s the thing that’s drawn me. I like things that deal with big ideas. That’s why Childhood’s End was so interesting to me.
Introduce us to your character Ricky Stormgren and why he was reimagined for this miniseries. In the book, Ricky Stormgren is a 60-year-old head of the UN from Finland. So many themes in the book, and ideas in the book, are sadly still as relevant — if not more relevant — today than they were then. One of the things that Matt Graham looked at when he wrote this is, if we’re going to have an intermediary between the Overlords and Earth, it has to be a guy that we can get behind. I would agree in today’s climate, politicians are not particularly the most trusted of people to carry out that job.
Matt envisioned this as a Moses story, how Moses was chosen and he fought the entiretime: “Hey, listen. I’m not your guy. I can’t talk properly. I have no experience in this. You need to go find someone else”. And God said, “Yeah, that’s exactly why you are the guy”. There’s something in us that wants to root for that charismatic everyman. Ricky is a mid-30s farmer from Missouri. He just has a natural ability to unite and bring people together. He’s not particularly witty, he’s not a political brain. He just sees things in black and white. A lot of people would say that politicians are consumed with preserving their position, with preserving their power. Ricky isn’t trying to please someone. He doesn’t care about that. What he cares about is what’s best for his family and the people down on Earth. I’m drawn to the blue-collar, straight-shooter that he is.
Between the way the Overlords recruit him and their grand agenda, how does Ricky wrap his head around everything going on? I don’t know that he necessarily does. What he sees is the results. He sees violence being done away with. He sees famine and poverty being addressed. The Overlords step onto the scene when humans achieve the ability for light-speed travel. They up and go, “OK, we’ve seen what you guys have done in your own house. We don’t want you to go and spread your seed anywhere else in the universe. We’re going to give you the Golden Age of Man here”, but, as we’re going to see, it doesn’t come cheaply or free. They set up a utopia. Ricky goes on board with all the great things that he’s seen, but he has a line of dialogue I believe got cut. His dad used to say, “That with every great meal, there comes a time you have to pay the check”. It’s that same sentiment that nothing comes free. They set up this utopia, but at what cost?
How would you describe the evolving dynamic between Ricky and Karellen? Karellen is the wisdom of the ages. For eons and eons, he’s been going from civilization to civilization on other worlds and going through this exact same thing. With Ricky, you see the reason why they chose him. He pushes back initially and challenges what is essentially this power that could squash him in five seconds. A kinship develops between these two, a bond of learning from one another. Ricky is learning things from Karellen’s wisdom. Karellen is learning things about humans that he envies and looks up to from Ricky. There’s a bond created over the sadness of what must be done and the future of how things are going to go between these two characters.
In the beginning, Karellen stays hidden from sight, and it’s Ricky alone in a room. Did Charles Dance come in and read his lines, or were you conversing with thin air? It was conversing and reacting to nothing. Charles was offstage, and they had a speaker in the room. I could hear his voice, and with Charles Dance, that’s all you need. With that voice, he sighs and you snap to attention. It was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done. Because it’s all being read in a narrative form, I’m imaging Karellen being there and saying these things to Ricky. It didn’t dawn on me, “Oh, wait a minute. He’s not physically here at all. It’s me standing in front of my own reflection, standing in front of a mirror, having to do this entire thing”. Director Nick Hurran pointed that out when I first got to Australia. I was like, “Oh, crap, I didn’t even think about that”. Karellen is testing Ricky’s vanity. Ricky is being forced to sit there and sort of argue with himself, stare at himself the whole time. It added an interesting layer to the story.
Eventually, Karellen reveals himself to Ricky. What was it like filming that scene, and did they provide any conceptual art to prepare you? I asked not to see Charles in the suit, in the costume, prior to those scenes. That voice coming out of that suit was otherworldly. In the suit, Charles is probably eight or nine feet tall. It was shocking seeing it on camera, seeing the look they were able to achieve is amazing. That they did this all through costume and makeup, and not digital or special effects, is going to be a big surprise for people.
The camera angles certainly accentuate the height difference. Because he’s on stilts, it’s truly incredible. When you’re there in person doing that scene, you feel so small and inadequate and inferior to this Karellen character. Yet, he’s letting you in this inner circle. There’s a lot of stuff pulling on Ricky’s mind and pulling on his emotions. He’s trying to sort out, “Who is this guy? Why me?” And once you’ve been given entrance to the knowledge that he has, it’s realizing, “I don’t want any of that”.
The final moments of the Childhood’s End novel are fairly bleak. What are your thoughts on how it culminated in this adaptation and what it says about humanity? To me, it’s like holding a mirror up to humanity and saying, “Come on, guys, we’re not here yet”. If this was a possible ending to our story, what do we need to do to go about and bring people together? How can we do that? Again, the fact that were asking these questions in the ‘50s when Clarke wrote this, and we’re still asking those things today with a lot of the same world events still happening, is shocking.
People can look at it as a hopeless ending. I looked at it as a hopeful ending. I know in what we filmed, there was a twinge of hope. There’s a hopeful little thing that, if you’re a believer in the afterlife, it kind of says, “OK, the story doesn’t end here”. Beyond that, it presents hope to us now as if to say, “Let’s look in the mirror and figure out how to fix this thing now”.